SANTIAGO, Aug 28, 2012 (AFP) - Clashes broke out Tuesday in Santiago between police and tens of thousand of demonstrators demanding education reform.
The rally was one of the largest in recent weeks, with between 50,000 and 130,000 protestors, according to police and protest organizers.
While some danced to the rhythm of drums, thousands of others, masked and wearing hoods, followed the procession and attacked police with sticks and stones.
The police responded, as they have in the past, with tear gas and water cannons.
The students were backed by members of the Unified Workers Federation (CUT), the country's foremost union, which called on members to join the march.
For over a year, Chilean students have rallied in the streets, calling for reform to the Latin American nation's education system, considered expensive, inefficient and inequitable.
"It's (the violent protestors) who are causing harm for everyone. Everything could have gone very well," 15-year-old student Javiera told AFP, as she looked on at the masked demonstrators mounted on a barricade.
Student organizers say violent elements among rally-goers allow authorities "to criminalize" the student movement and divert attention from the students' demands.
"I hope that at the end of the day, we speak of strengthening public education ... and the end of profit" in private education, said one of the leading student organizers, Gabriel Boric.
Only a handful of demonstrators have gone to court after more than forty demonstrations since 2011, during which police have conducted mass arrests, widely criticized by a number of human rights organizations.
A spokeswoman for a group of human rights observers, Marta Cistena, said the armed police presence was "totally disproportionate."
"The police believe they can do whatever they want with total impunity," Cistena said.
By the end of 2011, the movement had garnered a 10 percent budget increase for education, in what was a small boon to student debt and what might have been the beginning of reform in the management of public schools.
Public education in Chile suffered from sharp cuts in funding during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, leaving a system that favors expensive private schools that are out of the reach of the poor.