Indigenous Ecuadorans have blocked roads with rocks and burning tires to protest soaring fuel prices as the country grapples with a state of emergency and battles challenges on multiple fronts.
The government had warned on Tuesday it would move to "prevent the closure of roads" to passengers and goods, and police and soldiers were deployed countrywide to monitor protesters.
In at least one location, police launched gas canisters in a standoff with demonstrators, and the office of rightist President Guillermo Lasso said 18 arrests had been made by afternoon.
The unrest comes as Ecuador simultaneously battles economic collapse worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, widespread popular discontent, violent crime blamed on drug gangs, and corruption allegations against Lasso, an ex-banker whose center-right economic policies are viewed with suspicion by many.
Protesters disrupted traffic in five of Ecuador's 24 provinces, including Pichincha, where a march was planned for the capital Quito later Tuesday.
"The security forces will see to it that law and order is respected," insisted presidency spokesman Carlos Jijon, building on Lasso's earlier vow to prevent road closures.
The flex of authority has not deterred demonstrators.
"We have collectively taken this decision (to demonstrate) in the face of the new economic measures that are increasingly crushing our populations, our transport workers and our communities," protest organizer Julio Cesar Pilalumbo told AFP.
"We will resist and we will not give in to any repression," he said at a roadblock in Zumbahua in central Ecuador, where poncho-wearing women armed with spades and sticks helped men move large stones to block traffic.
Lasso tweeted that the protest "paralysis" meant "economic losses for small businesses, which sustain thousands of Ecuadoran families and households."
Hike in fuel prices
Fuel prices have nearly doubled since last year.
Last Friday, Lasso announced another price hike to $1.90 for a gallon (3.8 liters) of diesel –– up from $1 in 2020 –– and $2.55 for petrol.
He vowed it would be the last increase, but this was not enough to assuage anger with economic policy in a country that exports oil but imports much of the fuel it consumes.
Protesters under the umbrella of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie) want the price capped at $1.50 for diesel and $2 for petrol.
State of emergency
Conaie is credited with helping topple three presidents between 1997 and 2005, and in 2019 led successful protests against the government's scrapping of fuel subsidies.
Indigenous people represent 7.4 percent of the country's 17.7 million inhabitants.
Labor unions and students were invited to join Tuesday's action, with the presidential palace in Quito cordoned off as Lasso faces the largest protests since taking office in May.
He had declared a 60-day state of emergency last week to tackle rising crime and violence blamed on duelling drug traffickers in the country nestled between the world's two biggest cocaine producers: Colombia and Peru.
The state of emergency, decreed after some 240 gang-aligned inmates were killed in horrific prison clashes since January, allows for deployment of troops to help fight a crime wave that last week also claimed Ecuador's 200 meters world bronze medalist Alex Quinonez in a shooting in Guayaquil.
Pandora Papers revelations
Ecuador's economic spiral has been aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, with external debt at almost $46 billion, or 45 percent of GDP.
Poverty affects about 47 percent of Ecuadorans; nearly a third do not have full-time work.
Teacher Fabiola Gualotuna, among the protesters in Zumbahua, said she felt let down by Lasso.
"He said he is going to raise teachers' salaries," she told AFP. "Some of us teachers travel seven and eight kilometers and earn a pittance. It is not fair."
Lasso is facing a parliamentary investigation over Pandora Papers revelations that he allegedly hid millions in assets overseas.