January 12, 2017 / 8:45 PM / 10 months ago

Peru police clash with crowds protesting road tolls

LIMA (Reuters) - Police arrested dozens of protesters and fired tear gas and pellets to disperse crowds in Peru’s capital Lima on Thursday after thousands of residents marched against new road fees in a contract awarded to corruption-plagued Brazilian builder Odebrecht.

Protesters demanded cancellation of the tolls and marched with signs that read “No to Tolls” and “Down with Corruption” before clashes erupted. At least one policeman was injured, the government said.

Television footage showed riot police hauling away protesters as others ran or threw rocks. The government said extremist groups infiltrated the protest.

Anger at Odebrecht in Peru has been swelling since the family-owned conglomerate acknowledged last month that it spent years bribing unnamed officials in a dozen countries including Peru.

In December, the Odebrecht-founded road consortium Rutas de Lima imposed new fees starting at 5 soles ($1.49) to use the only highway that connects populous shantytowns and working-class districts on the outskirts of northern Lima with the city’s centre. The minimum wage in Peru is 850 soles ($252) a month.

Residents called the fee, which has pushed up bus fares, abusive and said it was likely the result of a corrupt deal by the company to secure the 30-year, $500 million concession in 2013. Susana Villaran, mayor of Lima when the contract was signed, has denied wrongdoing.

“The roads belong to the people and not to corporations!” said Carlos Rossini, a protest leader who called for Odebrecht and its partners to “disappear” from Peru.

Rutas de Lima said it was open to dialogue and that the fees allow it to recover 1.7 billion soles in investments.

Odebrecht sold its majority stake in the consortium to Canada’s Brookfield Asset Management Inc last year as it faced a massive corruption inquiry in Brazil that hobbled its access to financing. Odebrecht now controls a quarter of Rutas de Lima and local investment fund SIGMA 18 percent.

On the eve of the protest, the city of Lima announced a month long suspension of the fee while an alternative was sought.

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has barred Odebrecht from future public work contracts but said not all it has done was corrupt.

Odebrecht Peru said its top priority is to assist local prosecutors and pay Peru eventual reparations.

The $29 million in bribes Odebrecht said it distributed to win contracts in Peru span three presidencies, threatening to expose high-level officials involved in its schemes.

Reporting By Mitra Taj, Marco Aquino and Reuters TV; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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