President Lenín Moreno ordered the army on to the streets of Ecuador’s capital Quito after a week and a half of protests over fuel prices devolved into violent incidents, with masked protesters attacking a television station, newspaper and the national auditor’s office.
Moreno said the military enforced curfew would begin at 3pm local time in response to violence in areas previously untouched by the protests. Masked protesters broke into the national auditor’s office and set it ablaze, sending black smoke billowing across the central Quito park and cultural complex that have been the epicentre of the protests.
Later, several dozen masked men swarmed the offices of the private Teleamazonas television station, set fires on the grounds and tried to break into the building where about 20 employees were trapped.
“They’re trying to enter the station, trying to break down the doors, we’re asking for help but the police aren’t coming,” one employee told the Associated Press.
A journalist with the newspaper El Comercio told the AP that the paper’s offices were also under attack. The building’s security guards were seized and tied up and attackers were trying to break into offices where journalists were hiding.
Moreno appeared on national television alongside his vice-president and defence minister to announce that he was ordering people indoors and sending the army on to the streets.
He blamed the violence on drug traffickers, organised crime and followers of former president Rafael Correa, who has denied allegations that he is trying to topple Moreno’s government.
Moreno served as Correa’s vice-president before he become president and the two men went through a bitter split as Moreno pushed to curb public debt amassed on Correa’s watch.
Moreno said the masked protesters had nothing to do with the thousands of indigenous Ecuadorian groups who have protested for nearly a week over a sudden rise in fuel prices as part of an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-backed austerity package.
“I have ordered the [armed forces] to immediately undertake all the necessary measures and operations,” Moreno said. “We are going to restore order in all of Ecuador.”
The violence, curfew and military deployment came shortly after the announcement of a possible softening of the 10-day standoff. Indigenous leaders of the fuel price protests that have paralysed Ecuador’s economy for days said early on Saturday afternoon that they were willing to negotiate with Moreno over the austerity package.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador said on Twitter that “we have decided to participate in direct dialogue” with Moreno.
Minutes later, Leonidas Iza, a Quechua leader from mountainous Cotopaxi province, told Ecuavisa television that “we have asked for minimal conditions for dialogue,” including what he called an end to government violence against protesters.
Previously, indigenous protesters had refused to negotiate until Moreno restored fuel subsidies.
Quito mayor Jorge Yunda said Moreno was willing to revise the package and planned to meet Saturday with leaders of the demonstrations. Yunda said he and other mayors were mediating the standoff that has halted Ecuador’s oil production, blocked highways and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in loss to industries such as flower-growing to dairy farming.
As the two sides made progress toward compromise, violence was spreading.
Across the capital, hooded men used rocks and burning tires to block streets in residential neighbourhoods. Some drivers, pedestrians and owners of small businesses reported being threatened and robbed. Roads leading to the international airport were blocked, according to city officials.
The indigenous leaders distanced themselves from the violent gangs, calling them instigators unconnected to the native groups’ cause.
Interior minister María Paula Romo said 30 people had been arrested in the attack on the auditor’s office. Firefighters said they extinguished the blaze after soldiers and police retook control of the building, which houses evidence in corruption investigations.
Ecuador, a former OPEC member, was left deeply in debt by a decade of high-spending governance and the oil price drop. Faced with $64 billion in debt and an annual deficit of $10 billion, Moreno is raising taxes, liberalising labour laws and cutting public spending in order to secure more than $4 billion in emergency financing from the IMF.