The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has triggered a series of civil unrest and looting incidents across Latin America since early February. A large majority of the incidents were peaceful protests but more serious ones, including riots and lootings, have also been reported in several countries. Violent incidents have been mostly prompted by misinformation disseminated on social media and concerns about food, health and financial security. Concerns over poor hygiene levels at detention facilities have also served as a catalyst of violence in recent weeks.
Governments in Latin America are likely to extend and tighten restrictive measures implemented to stem the spread of the virus over the next few weeks. This is likely to exacerbate popular concerns about food security and economic repercussions, leading to further protests, riots and lootings.
Measures implemented by state governors to contain the spread of COVID-19 have increased social tensions in the country, triggering a series of peaceful and violent incidents. The majority of the incidents have been protests organised by supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro, particularly businessmen who oppose the restrictive measures. Bolsonaro has argued that the measures will severely damage the economy. He has repeatedly urged individuals to flout social distancing measures and join protests to pressure state governors to roll back their COVID-19 containment policies.
Misinformation disseminated on social media has contributed to an escalation in social tensions. Some social media posts have disseminated misinformation claiming the pandemic is a Chinese hoax. Several of these posts have been shared by Bolsonaro and some of his close allies, including his sons and cabinet ministers.
Most protests organised by Bolsonaro’s supporters have taken the form of motorcades. For instance, thousands of protesters drove at slow speeds through roads in major cities on 27 March. Bolsonaro’s supporters have also held mass rallies in major cities in defiance of social distancing guidelines. In at least one case, a protest escalated into a skirmish with police, who arrested the organisers for breaching coronavirus containment measures.
Another incident of note occurred on 19 April, when thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters held mass protests in major cities. Bolsonaro himself joined a protest in Brasilia, in which some demonstrators demanded the return of the military dictatorship in Brazil. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s supporters assaulted two women during a demonstration in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul state.
Bolsonaro’s opposition to the state-level containment measures have also triggered an opposition protest movement. Hundreds of thousands of individuals who disagree with Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic have taken to banging pots, particularly during presidential announcements on national television. However, banging pots is a common practice in the region and is largely considered a signal of political disapproval rather than a form of civil disobedience.
The lack of adequate protective equipment at hospitals has also been a trigger of peaceful protests, with healthcare workers holding demonstrations in several parts of the country.
Violent incidents in the region have mostly taken the form of riots and protests at prison facilities. These incidents were largely triggered by measures such as the suspension of visits to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In addition, some riots have been triggered by concerns that poor infrastructure and hygiene levels at prisons could place inmates at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
In the most serious incident, more than 1,300 inmates rioted and escaped from four prisons across Sao Paulo state on 16 March. Most of the inmates had been sentenced for non-violent crimes but several of them were members of the First Capital Command (PCC) gang, which, according to local media, organised the riots from outside the prisons to free some of its members.
As the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil evolves, state governors are expected to further extend and enforce restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus. This is likely to result in heightened levels of social tension in the country over the coming weeks. In addition, Bolsonaro and his supporters are likely to continue to criticise the restrictive measures and disseminate inaccurate information on social media, leading to further protests.
Violent incidents, particularly riots and protests at prisons have largely subsided since courts started to place non-violent inmates under house arrest during the pandemic in late March. However, further riots organised by the PCC and other criminal groups cannot be discounted in the coming weeks.
Most incidents related to the COVID-19 pandemic in Chile have taken the form of protests organised by civilians to demand the implementation or enforcement of restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus. A large majority of the protests were peaceful and only led to minor disruption. Several protests were triggered by increased disgruntlement over a lack of enforcement of travel and business closure restrictions.
This lack of enforcement has seen bus drivers protest in Santiago and other cities, retail workers hold demonstrations at shopping centres and residents of coastal areas barricade roads leading to major tourist destinations to protest against the arrival of high numbers of tourists.
Protests organised by groups who oppose restrictive measures, including taxi drivers, have also been reported in Santiago and other regions in Chile.
Some of these protests turned violent and led to clashes with police and other civilians, particularly when demonstrators disrupted travel with road barricades. In one of the more serious incidents, a gunman opened fire at a group of demonstrators who blocked a road in Valparaiso to restrict the entry of tourists in the city. However, there was no confirmation of fatalities or injuries related to this incident.
Riots and protests at prisons across the country have also been reported over concerns that the virus could spread inside the detention facilities. In the most serious incident, inmates set fire to mattresses and other objects as they attempted to escape a prison in Santiago metropolitan area. The riot took place over suspicions that a prisoner held at the facility had contracted the virus. Authorities fired tear gas cannisters and were able to ensure that none of the prisoners escaped. There was no confirmation of serious injuries associated with the riot.
Protests organised by bus drivers and retail workers have largely subsided since late March as the government enforced the closure of all non-essential businesses. However, protests organised by residents of coastal cities are likely to continue over the coming weeks, as authorities continue to fail to effectively enforce travel restrictions. Furthermore, protests and riots at prisons in Chile have largely subsided since Congress approved legislation in late March to release inmates at higher risk of COVID-19. Nevertheless, further riots cannot be discounted, particularly as a group of lawmakers have been successful in delaying the implementation of the legislation for two weeks on 13 April.
The large majority of incidents in Colombia have taken the form of peaceful protests organised by residents opposing some of the restrictive measures and demanding government assistance amid the pandemic. Protests held by healthcare workers over concerns about lack of adequate protective equipment have also been frequently reported.
Some of these protests have been highly disruptive as demonstrators have blocked roads and rail lines, particularly in Magdalena department, preventing the transit of freight trains as well as private and transportation vehicles.
In some cases, protests turned violent as police intervened to disperse the demonstrations. In one of the most serious incidents, residents of Manizales in Caldas department attacked police officers with machetes and other bladed object during a protest to demand government assistance. Police shot tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets and were able to disperse the demonstrators. No serious injuries associated with this incident were reported.
Lootings have also been reported in some areas of Colombia. The Mayor of Fundacion city in Magdalena department imposed a temporary curfew from 1400 hrs on 20 April until 0500 hrs local time on 21 April due to a series of violent incidents, including protests and lootings, perpetrated by residents opposing restrictive measures.
Misinformation disseminated on social media has also been a trigger of protests in Colombia. In at least two separate events, residents of Pereira city in Risalda department and the city of Cali in Valle del Cauca department held violent protests and clashed with police after receiving false information on social media suggesting that authorities were distributing food and medicines to help people cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riots at prison facilities have also been reported in at least two occasions over concerns that poor infrastructure and hygiene conditions could place inmates at higher risk of contracting the virus. However, no prison escapes were reported during these incidents.
Colombia is likely to continue to experience disruptive and violent incidents over the coming weeks as the COVID-19 situation evolves in the country. A decision by the government on 20 April to extent restrictive measures until 11 May is expected to further exacerbate already elevated levels of social tension. Protests, including road and rail blockades as well as lootings, are expected to persist as the government has been slow in adopting measures to mitigate the economic impact of the COVID-19-related restrictions on vulnerable social groups.
Mexico has experienced the second largest number of COVID-19 incidents of all countries in Latin America. Nevertheless, the majority of the incidents have been peaceful protests organised by healthcare workers to denounce a lack of protective equipment and poor working conditions.
There have also been frequent protests organised by informal workers, hospitality workers and traders to demand financial assistance to help mitigate the impact of the restrictive measures.
A small number of theses protests turned violent and led to clashes with police. At one of the protests, police shot live rounds into the air to disperse a group of demonstrators who had blocked a road to protest a street market eviction in Uruapan city in Michoacan state. At least two demonstrators and one journalist covering the event were wounded by the gunshots.
At least three violent incidents have also been reported at migrant detention centres in Mexico over concerns that poor infrastructure and low hygiene standards could put the detainees at risk of contracting the virus. In the most serious incident, detainees set fire to mattresses and other objects at the Tenosique migrant detention centre to demand to be released. One Guatemalan migrant died and at least 14 others were taken to hospital due to smoke intoxication.
Misinformation disseminated on social media has also been a trigger of violent incidents in Mexico. On 25 March, police in Mexico City said they were investigating a series of lootings at shops which were linked to inaccurate social media posts containing false pictures of lootings at stores and making fabricated claims about goods shortages in order to encourage people to join the looters.
Peaceful protests organised by healthcare workers are likely to continue in Mexico over the coming weeks as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country increases and the international supply chain for protective equipment remains disrupted. In addition, protests over financial assistance are also likely to continue if the government extends the ongoing restrictions.
Misinformation propagated on social media is also likely to continue being a trigger of violent incidents. Further riots at migrant detention centres cannot be discounted over the coming weeks as tensions over poor infrastructure and low levels of hygiene at the detention facilities remain high.
Other key countries:
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