Cuenca’s new city government says it is stunned by the extent of illegal activity in the city’s public markets. According to markets director Marcelo Álvarez, there are “mafias” operating inside the facilities, especially at El Arenal, commonly known as Feria Libre, the city’s largest market on Av. Las Americas.
“The illegal operators are extorting the vendors, intimidating suppliers and running prostitution and liquor-making businesses out of the markets,” says one of Álvarez’s assistants who is working on the investigation. “We have dismantled two distilleries that have no health controls and are looking for others. We are also trying to take down the brothel business but have been unsuccessful so far.”
The assistant, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the “market mafias” have operated with impunity for years. “There was apparently an unspoken agreement with the previous city administration that they would be allowed to operate. We are looking into the possibility that money changed hands in this agreement.”
A fruit vendor at Feria Libre welcomes the city’s crackdown and says it should have happened years ago. “It feels very dangerous to work here but most of us have no choice.” She adds that the liquor made in back rooms and tarpelined market corners is dangerous and leads to widespread drunkenness. “The drunks are lying all over the place and they keep away costumers,” she says.
The vendor added that she is aware of the prostitution business but not how it operates. “I see the men going by with the painted-up women but don’t know where they go to do their business. Maybe they do it on the potatoes, I don’t know.”