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Anger over mortgages

Mortgage debtors in Chile are holding high-profile protests.

SANTIAGO — They’ve spent the night atop a 25-meter-high construction crane. They've blocked highways, barged into solemn events and climbed the windows of the presidential palace. And as of early this month, dozens of people with mortgage debts were camping along the edge of a city river, pledging not to end their protest until the government takes care of decades worth of old debts they can no longer afford.

These debtors — who are low-income — have organized a group called Andha-Chile. Their current protest has them setting up tents steps from the polluted Mapocho River that crosses the capital. They've weathered cold, damp nights, recent rains and a lack of hygiene.

Specifically, they want the government to cancel the debts of the most vulnerable of the 195,000 debtors who signed up for a 20-year-old housing program.

President Michelle Bachelet tries to keep as far away from the group's members as possible. She knows that wherever she goes, Andha is sure to follow, and they are not a quiet bunch. The police have had to draw up special security plans when there is a chance that Andha-Chile members may appear.

The group's 14,000 members have intensified their protests in recent months, resorting to occasionally dangerous ways of drawing attention to their cause. They say that with interest rates as high as 14 percent, and with the economic climate deteriorating, they are simply unable to continue their payments. They are afraid that their homes will be taken away, something the government has promised to prevent.

They have disrupted solemn events, interrupted Bachelet’s speeches and staged loud protests outside her home. They have barged into the Sheraton Hotel during the finance minister's speech to business leaders, and have protested in front of his home.

They've demonstrated outside and inside government offices and banks, set up barricades on city streets and highways, and occupied a cathedral south of the capital. They’ve marched 75 miles to Congress, hung from the electronic voting panel inside congressional chambers, climbed up the presidential palace windows and waddled in its water fountain.

Members of the group say that they've paid enough.

“We’ve paid the value of our homes several times over," said Benedicto Cuello, a member of the organization. "Mortgage payments were established in U.F. (a measurement unit based on inflation that is adjusted daily), and rise constantly. These are poor quality housing units that are worth very little, and we should be made to pay for what they are worth, not what the banks want to profit from them."