KEIR RADNEDGE reports from BELO HORIZONTE
—- Japan v Mexico sounds an unlikely rallying point for a protest march but it was the wider context, a Confederations Cup tie, which brought night-time confrontation back on to the streets here in Belo Horizonte.
Earlier in the day protesters had mixed with Japanese, Mexican and Brazilian fans – and even flower-pinned soldiers – in the sunshine in the heart of the capital of the state of Minas Gerais.
But later in the afternoon tension rose after protesters blocked a main highway into the city and another group headed towards the stadium ahead of the Group B tie. Estimates of the number of protesters escalated from 15,000 to 66,000.
Riot police blocked the way and a stand-off was brought to a dramatic end by the firing of several volleys of tear gas canisters. These drove the protesters back. However the action also fragmented the demonstration and separate groups then headed back towards the centre of the city down a mixture of different routes.
As before and in other cities, hooligans later mingled in among the protesters, throwing stones at the police and then smashing shop windows, setting fires and engaging in some looting.
As night fell so mounted police and water cannon were brought up in support of the helmeted riot squads. Police reported 15 protesters and passers-by taken to hospital for treatment to cuts and gashes after being struck by a mixture of missiles and tear gas canisters.
As the confrontations continued – at one stage demonstrators invaded a fire service depot – military police commander Colonel Márcio Santana issued an appeal for protesters to go home peacefully. He also appealed for parents to persuade teenagers and students to quit the action.
Reports continued to flow in of demonstrations in other cities including one in Sao Paulo state in tribute to the student killed when a car ploughed into a protest group earlier in the week.
The worst protests in more than two decades erupted two weeks ago, initially over a proposed rise in bus fares in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Within days the protests had escalated nationwide as activitists contrasted monies being spent on World Cup organisation with monies not being spent on health, education, housing and law and order.
FIFA has insisted there is no possibility of the Confederations Cup, a World Cup warm-up tournament, being abandoned.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff has expressed some sympathy for the protesters’ concerns while appealing for them to give her government an opportunity to enact the necessary changes.