(Update 1: Updates number of arrests and injured, adds details)
Quito, Oct 26 (EFE).- A march on Tuesday by thousands of people protesting the austerity policies of Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso ended with a confrontation between police and demonstrators near the presidential palace that left 37 arrested and at least five wounded.
The clashes broke out in Plaza de Santo Domingo in the heart of Quito following a peaceful march called by labor unions and social groups.
“In all parts of Ecuador, the demonstrations have been peaceful. This is the only attempt at violence in the entire day,” Interior Minister Alexandra Vela said at a press conference.
Vela attributed the “acts of vandalism” to what she dubbed as a “guevarist group,” comprising of some “fifty young people dressed in black with green backpacks” who were at the back of the procession.
The minster said that, upon entering the plaza, the group began to provoke the police and throw stones at them while the leaders of the main labor unions took the floor from the monument located in the middle of the plaza.
Despite a large group of riot police stationed on the other side, the protesters managed to remove the barricades at the entrance to one of the streets leading to the neighboring Plaza Grande, where the presidential palace is located.
Police officers on foot responded with tear gas while those on motorcycles and horses drove the demonstrators away from the historic center in under an hour.
The protesters removed large paving stones and threw them at the officers, five of whom were injured, Vela said.
A total of 37 people were arrested throughout the day, some at the protest and others for blocking roads and obstructing traffic in several provinces of the country, Vela added.
Videos posted to social media showed picket lines and blockades made with branches, stones and fires, as well as minor clashes in provinces including Imbabura, Cotopaxi and Azuay in the Sierra region, and Guayas along the coast.
Human rights groups reported cases of alleged excessive use of force by police, in one case against a journalist, while a case of sexual abuse of a woman has also been reported.
In another incident, Defense Minister Luis Hernandez confirmed that two soldiers were being held in Atahualpa, north of Quito, by members of a community.
“The two soldiers are fine. They were in plain clothes (engaged) in logistical activities,” he said without revealing the status of negotiations to free them.
The chief grievance is Lasso’s policy of gradually increasing the price of fuel, which he suspended a few days ago in a bid to quell the outcry.
Many demonstrators likewise pointed to revelations in the Pandora Papers — a trove of documents detailing questionable transactions in tax havens — that call into question the veracity of the multimillionaire president’s financial disclosure statements.
Ecuador’s 2007 constitution bars officeholders from financial holdings in tax-haven jurisdictions.
In a message on social media, the president asked citizens to say “No” to the protests due to their impact on the economy.
“The shutdown results in economic losses for small businesses, which are the livelihood of thousands of Ecuadorian families and households,” he said.
The unions and social groups were scheduled to meet on Tuesday night to assess the day and discuss their next protest. EFE