Image: Mexico City street vendors
Marco Ugarte  /  AP
Mexico City street vendors take away their goods Friday morning. Officials hope a ban will unclog streets usually packed with stands of knockoff purses and pirated DVDs.
updated 10/12/2007 6:49:00 PM ET 2007-10-12T22:49:00

More than 1,000 police officers in riot gear blocked street vendors from setting up stands selling knockoff purses and pirated DVDs Friday, clearing Mexico City’s clogged historic center for the first time in more than a decade.

The removal of vendors from 87 downtown streets was peaceful — at least a temporary victory for leftist Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who is widely believed to have presidential ambitions.

Like dozens of mayors before him, Ebrard has promised to take back public spaces and improve the quality of life in the city of 8.5 million.

But vendors warn they will be back when the holiday shopping season begins in November, renewing a conflict that dates back centuries.

A worn marble plaque, installed in 1673 on a convent that now serves as a jewelry store, warns vendors to keep off its street corner or face reprisals from the government of “New Spain.”

Vendors can sell at Christmas
While the city will grant vendors a brief reprieve at Christmas, allowing them to return to sell to holiday shoppers, they are supposed to leave after the New Year and relocate to government-subsidized properties nearby.

Earlier administrations have tried relocating vendors as well: many of the city’s main indoor marketplaces were created decades ago to help clear the streets. And the strategy often worked, for a while.

But many vendors say they won’t go. Represented by large and sometimes violent unions, they argue the designated properties offered by the city will fail to attract customers.

“They are not thinking about the fact that these people don’t have jobs,” Alejandra Barrios, president of a high-profile vendors union, told W Radio. “What do they think these people will do?”

Street vendors are a tradition dating back to pre-Hispanic times in Mexico. Today, vendors sell everything from food to car parts.

Other major cities, like New York and Rome, also struggle with smaller armies of illegal vendors who sell items such as sunglasses and umbrellas, often from large suitcases that they can quickly pick up when police arrive.

The Mexico City Chamber of Commerce estimates there are 35,000 vendors in the downtown area alone, including those who hawk amber jewelry and brightly embroidered blouses to tourists in the main Zocalo square.

15,000 removed from downtown
Jose Angel Avila, Mexico City’s government secretary, said about 15,000 street vendors were removed from the heart of downtown Friday. It was unclear if the city would expand the program by clearing out street markets in the poor neighborhoods surrounding downtown.

As dawn broke outside the National Palace, only a handful of elderly vendors sold candy and sweet bread, and they were politely asked to leave.

Elena Ramirez, who was selling sweet bread for 25 cents a piece, said she didn’t plan to stop selling her merchandise outside the metro exit.

“The politicians have their salaries, but if I don’t sell, I don’t eat,” said Ramirez, 79, who said she sells about $3 worth of bread on a good day, enough to buy some food for her and her sick husband.

Susana Reyes, a 40-year-old clothing store clerk, wasn’t sympathetic. She welcomed the calm walk to work on a street that previously was nearly impassable because it was so clogged with shoppers and sellers.

“It’s a good idea that they move them somewhere else,” she said. “Because of them, it has taken me and my co-workers up to three hours to drive through four streets.”

Arturo Vasquez, a 51-year-old seller of electrical supplies, said vendors will gradually return, probably even before November. He has been selling on the streets since 1964 and stopped only briefly in the 1990s, when he went to the U.S. to work illegally.

“It’s going to fail,” he said of Ebrard’s plan. “If they don’t let us set up the stands, then we’ll walk up and down the streets and sell that way.”

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