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THE WORLD | DISPATCH FROM MEXICO CITY

Between Officials and Local Bosses, Vendors Claim a Piece of the Pavement

January 17, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Juice vendor Bernardo Guzman recently paid more than $3,800 for a 54-square-foot piece of sidewalk in this teeming capital city.

Even though the sidewalks and the streets in the neighborhood just north of the Zocalo, or central square, are public property, everyone knows they really belong to vendors, an army of small-time entrepreneurs who eke out a living selling everything from pirated DVDs to cheap lingerie to strawberry smoothies.

"All the spots on this street are sold," Guzman said. "On the other street they own their spots too."

Every day is a battle to keep the streets open as desperately poor vendors try to claim new patches of concrete and asphalt in one of the city's largest open-air markets. Many longtime vendors, like Guzman, have found ways to make their presence on the street semi-permanent. Owners and renters of actual storefronts in the community long ago gave up trying to chase away the street peddlers.

In a sense, the neighborhood is Mexico City in microcosm: vibrant, overcrowded and unregulated.

"It's always been like this," said Maria Mendez, who runs a party supply store. Every year they spread a little more."

Guzman, the juice seller, paid a vendors cooperative for his space on the sidewalk. The cooperative, in turn, negotiated a truce with city planning officials. Other vendors pay a weekly rent to a network of "leaders," who pay off city officials and police. This results in a semblance of order -- but not always.

This month, during the peak of shopping season for the Three Wise Men gift-giving holiday, the main artery through the neighborhood was nearly shut down by people selling toys and trinkets. It took more than a thousand police to remove vendors and keep the street open.

"What happened is that the vendors had occupied five of the seven lanes of traffic," said Raul Arenas Juarez, the police official who led the operation on the street, Axis One North. Buses were getting stuck. It was significantly worse than Mexico City's usual traffic quagmire: Even the TV news showed up to cover it.

"We're trying to bring some order to the situation," Arenas Juarez said.

Guzman and his vendor neighbors also yearn for order. For years, they've operated on two blocks of Haiti and Dominican Republic streets. Six mornings a week, they erected their flimsy, tarp-covered stands on the crumbling sidewalks. At night, they took the tarps down and surrendered the streets to the prostitutes.

Last month, Guzman and his friends completed a project to clean up their area. They built a two-story steel and fiberglass roof that stretches across the street and down a pair of city blocks. They bought new trash cans and hired full-time security.

"This way is much nicer," Guzman said. "We're no longer at the mercy of the sun and the rain."

For the right to sell juices and smoothies under the new roof, Guzman paid $3,800 to the newly created cooperative. Among other things, the one-time fee went for six roof-mounted security cameras that survey the street below.

"Welcome," reads a sign hanging over the street. "Shop safe and secure, with 24-hour surveillance."

Traffic still circulates under the roof because the street remains public property. The city government approved the project, even though none of the vendors there pays business taxes.

"All we are trying to do is to bring order to the informal sector and create conditions to recuperate the flow of traffic," said Adolfo Savin, a city planning official.

The arrangement amounts to an official promise not to enforce the law: Savin says the city could evict the vendors if they wanted to, but probably won't. If they did, a loud and perhaps violent protest would probably follow.

Such arrangements are common in a city where millions earn their living on the informal market.

Trash scavengers, blind beggars and street-corner window washers all must pay regular fees to self-appointed "leaders" with government connections. Many will tell you that the leaders are really a mafia whose chief function is to extort money from the poor.

The street vendors on Haiti and Dominican Republic streets used to pay a leader about $10 a week to be able to work there. When the vendors started their cooperative, they paid him to go away.

"At first he didn't want to leave, but then we reached an agreement with him," said Carlos Soto Cervantes, who hawks tote bags and suitcases.

For Soto Cervantes, the new roof is the culmination of a dream. He had arrived at the street seven years ago along with dozens of other vendors, after the city evicted them from the sidewalk in Mexico City's historic center.

"We came here as pioneers, when the street was full of abandoned cars and trash," he said. "We got to work and cleaned things up."

By now Soto Cervantes has been at this stretch of Dominican Republic street so long that he's had business cards printed with the address: "Charly Creations ... Backpacks and Travel Bags ... In front of Dominican Republic No. 4."

As part of their cooperative project, the vendors have repaired the crumbling sidewalks and filled potholes on the street.

"The city might try to get rid of us here too, but with it fixed up like this, it will be harder for them to do that," Soto Cervantes said.

One day, he said, he and his fellow vendors might even pay taxes.

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