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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.”