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Cuenca struggles to control the growing number of informal street vendors

Informal vendors in the market area on Calle Gaspar Sangurima. (El Tiempo)

By Liam Higgins

Around city markets they take up space on sidewalks, selling fruit and vegetables and sometimes household goods. On historic district streets they push wheelbarrows of produce or food carts, some with gas-fired grills for cooking. Some simply walk, selling potato chips, candy and umbrellas. At busy intersections, they circulate among stopped cars, peddling juice, candy and nuts or offering to wash windshields.

The vendors have been a part of Cuenca street culture for centuries, providing an important service to busy residents who don’t have time to go to grocery stores and markets.

There is a problem, however. The street sellers are working illegally — or informally —  and their numbers are growing.

Informal food sellers in San Francisco Plaza.

“The informal vendors are stealing money and livelihoods from the vendors who are registered and who pay rent in the mercados,” says Sebastián Cevallos, lawyer for the Autonomous Merchants of the Federation of Retail Merchants of Azuay. “They take over the sidewalks near the mercados and even block the entrances to sell to customers who would otherwise buy inside. It is our opinion that the city is not doing enough to control the problem and that the problem is getting worse.”

Estimates of the number vendors working city streets depends on who you ask. The Office of Historical and Patrimonial Areas says there are 1,169 while the Office of Market Management puts the count at 2,000. According to Cevallos, these numbers are absurdly low; he says there are 8,000.

What everyone agrees on is that the number is increasing rapidly.

The city admits it has a big problem and says it is dedicated to enforcing the law. On the other hand, it says it lacks the personnel to cover all the markets and streets where informal sellers work.

A windshield washer who threatened drivers is arrested on Av. Solano. (El Tiempo)

According to Marcelo Álvarez, director of Cuenca markets, city sidewalks, plazas and streets are public spaces that cannot be used for private commercial purposes. “This is mandated in the constitution and we work as hard as we can to enforce it. Our problem is that there are only 268 Citizen Guards and only 205 are available on a given day to patrol the city. We simply don’t have the coverage we need.”

He adds: “Yes, it is unfair to the legal merchants who pay rent in the markets that they are undercut by the informals, many of them working near the markets, and it is our job to protect those who work legally.”

According to Álvarez, the Citizen Guard routinely hands out warnings to informal vendors that their merchandise will be confiscated if they are caught selling again. “The problem is that they move around and use other family members and friends to sell so it difficult to enforce a confiscation.”

Álvarez says that vendors working street intersections often pose more serious problems. “We are receiving more complaints of sellers who become aggressive toward motorists who refuse to buy their products,” he says. “The worst are the windshield washers who sometimes smear soap on windshields when drivers tell them no. These people are subject to arrest when they become violent.”

Informal vendors have their own complaints. “We are only working to feed our families,” says Diego Rosales, who sells on Civic Plaza adjacent to the 9th of Octubre market. “Do they expect us to go hungry? We are harassed every day by the police and sometimes they steal our goods.”

Like other informals, Rosales says he cannot afford to pay rent in a market and believes he has a right to work wherever he wants. He and several other sellers say they have demanded a meeting with Mayor Pedro Palacios to discuss the situation but have been turned away. “We are treated like trash and for what? Because we want to take care of our babies?”

According to Álvarez, many of the informal sellers refuse to become legal despite city offers. “We have a program to register and relocate them to the Naracay platform at the south control [near the Av. Las Americas intersection with the Azogues autopista] but most of them are not interested. They want to stay where they are.”

Rosales says the market at Naracay doesn’t attract enough customers to make the move feasible. “I need to be where I can make a living and close to home,” he says.

Álvarez says the problem will not go away any time soon. “We are always working for solutions, of course, and hope for improvement, but we have to be realistic,” he says. “These are hard economic times for many people and solutions will not come easily.”

32 thoughts on “Cuenca struggles to control the growing number of informal street vendors

  1. Illegal street vendors, don’t pay taxes, people who rent inside booths are left to their own devices to choose how much taxes they will pay. (Do you really think they pay taxes on every thing they sell at the Mercado every chicken , every Apple), Middle-class people who own homes and don’t completely finish them don’t pay taxes, small businesses can choose theoretically on how much taxes they will pay. Not a lot of people paying taxes for a place that is in debt up to their ears

      1. I am a legal small busniess owner and i was shocked to be told i could pick the amount of money i would possible make every year and they would tax me on what ever I suggested! I believe this is a loophole used by many to pay very low taxes.I actually had to insist on paying originally at the front desk at SRI I was told i dont need to regester at all

  2. This is a tough situation. I have compassion for those who are trying to make a living, but personally, I prefer to buy from the vendors who are authorized – and always in the same place. I develop relationships with vendors in the Feria Libre when I buy from them every week. I have no clue about their names, but I recognize them, and they recognize me.
    Ultimately it is not my problem to solve, so I just figure out how I am going to live peacefully and happily among the people I meet every day. A courteous smile and a little Spanish go a long way.

  3. Start locking them up and confiscate their merchandise. No warnings, just do it. If it happens enough, maybe they may be willing to do it legally.

  4. We all understand the needs of the illegal street vendors to feed their families by working in high traffic locations offering the most customers. However, those who own legal businesses also need to feed their families and have both a legal and equally valid moral argument. Regardless, the rule of law must always be followed if a society aims to live peacefully and prosperously. The city needs to clearly identify specific areas where street vendors are allowed to market their goods which do not conflict with legal businesses. Anyone selling in areas that are restricted to legal business should have their merchandise confiscated every time they are contacted by authorities. Importantly, educating the public on to the negative impacts of illegal vendors on the local business community should be a part of a public campaign to educate consumers and reduce this problem. Ultimately, consumers are who decide where their money is spent and therefore education is large step to a solution.

    I understand the frustration of operating a legal business where your customers are stolen away literally at your businesses doorway by those who pay no rent or other costs of sales. This is not acceptable and the negative impacts are many including reduced business tax collections which support critical public services and legal business has a vested interest in supporting and improving their business district creating a vibrant local economy.

    Fair minded vendors and consumers should none support lack of enforcement or breaking of the law. If any law is disrespected, then when any person needs the law why should they expect it to protect them then? Do I feel bad for the street vendors who need to feed their families? Of course, we all do. However, we should not support illegal street vendors or any unlawful act. Either we choose to equitably enforce taws or we live lawlessly. The latter does not create a harmonious and successful society.

  5. I love the hard working street vendors….in a country with so many poor the government should be more understanding…and the best fruits and veggies are sold by the street vendors!

    1. You should realize that those big, beautiful, expensive strawberries sold from the wheelbarrows look the way they do because they’re nurtured with pesticides.

      1. Like they’re not nurtured in pesticides, in SuperMaxi and Coral, or in the vast majority of supermarkets in the U.S.A.?

        1. Sure they are. It’s hard to know how much pesticide is used on the produce that we consume unless we grow it ourselves. But, there’s a rule of thumb. The prettier the fruit, chances are the more pesticide was used to grow it. That’s one reason we buy the smaller, cheaper, more “deformed” strawberries/fruit in the open market vs. off the wheelbarrows and in the supermarkets. Actually, I can’t understand why anyone would chose to buy less fresh, packaged produce in SuperMaxi or Coral.

          1. I rarely ever buy fresh fruits and vegetables in these supermarkets. But I’m not serving deformed strawberries to by guests on Christmas Day. No way! (lol)

  6. Simple, make it legal. It’s a centuries old tradition. The Cuenca I found when I first arrived here to live in 1994 didn’t have all this municipal intervention in peoples lives. I loved it.

  7. Probably another attempt at “gentrification.” I understand trying to control people who are threatening or making a nuisance out of themselves in the roadways. However, I have never been threatened by a street vendor or had one follow me into a place of business, hassling me to buy something. I find the majority of street vendors add to the charm of the city. But I won’t say the same for the beggars. As has been pointed out by others, many of the beggars rent children, would rather beg than look for work, sometimes threaten and often pursue people into places of business begging. Let the city focus its efforts on getting these people off the street and find a solution for the street vendors that leaves them in place. I sympathize with those who work for a living and who don’t want to be relocated to places where there is little buying traffic.

    1. I agree. The street vendors are a part of Ecuadorian tradition, and quite frankly, a tourist attraction. Who wants to come down to Cuenca for a vacation to feel like they are still in a facsimile of a United States city of comparable size?

  8. They are just trying to make a living. There is a shortest of jobs. They have the best fruit! Go after the graffiti kids attacking private parties offices and homes by defacing them, and it’s ugly, not art.

    1. Yeah, there is a shortest of jobs, for sure. There is also a shortage of jobs as well.

      I’m curious. Aren’t you the “Ricki” that used to whine about the cost of IESS insurance being so high that you were moving to Colombia? You used to say that about 10 times a week, but I doubted you ever moved. What’s the story?

  9. Let them be, small fines or something so the entire immigrant population doesnt inundate the already crowded streets. I really do not like people walking in traffick selling. Thats much more of a true problem than street vendors, at this point anyway.

  10. I never had a street vendor try to attack me. The city needs to leave them alone and go after the real criminals.

  11. If you look to see who approves of each of the posts on this thread, you’d swear that I’m a schizophrenic with multiple personalities. That’s because I’m ambivalent (in the true sense of the word) about this situation. Many of the posters here have made sound arguments for their particular point of view and I can always get behind a well reasoned and well expressed idea.

    Personally, I enjoy the presence of the street vendors as they add color and charm to the character of the city I love, but that is just a personal preference. I can readily see the point of view of the need to be a city and country where the rule of law prevails and the idea that the presence of street vendors is unfair to the legal merchants who struggle to feed their families the same as the street vendors.

    I readily admit that I have no answers for resolution of this situation, but I would pose several questions for those on either side of the argument;

    1.If you crack down on the street vendors and eliminate them completely, how will they sustain themselves and their families? It is hollow to tell them to look for regular jobs as flooding the already saturated market of job seekers with even more people is absurd on its face.

    2. For those who feel that the growth of street vendors should go unchecked, how do you justify the obvious negative effect this will have on legitimate merchants?

    One closing note; This fellow Cevallos does the people whom he represents no service when he dramatically overstates the present number of street vendors as being 8,000. I’ll eat my hat if there are that many vendors here in Cuenca. I’m thinking he must be an acolyte of the guy up north who has never met a statistic that he won’t exaggerate or outright lie about.

    1. Just my personal observation; in the ten years I have lived in Cuenca, it doesn’t seem to me that there are any more sidewalk vendors now than way I arrived. I will say that there does seem to be more “vendors” in more intersections, juggling and selling than when I arrived.

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