MEXICO CITY — The merchants in Mexico City's historic center have done their best to deck the halls for the Christmas season, but they have a problem: The sidewalks are under occupation and are the setting for a shopper-discouraging war.
The cause of the unwelcome commotion is the thousands of street vendors - ambulantes - who have invaded commercial streets. The vendors have been a growing presence since Mexico's December 1994 economic crash, but their numbers rise in December when shoppers arrive with fatter wallets. With many shopowners counting on the holiday season as a make-or-break period, tempers flare.
Mexico City commerce leaders estimate shopowners will lose $65 million during the holiday season alone to street vendors in the historic center.
It's not uncommon to see police chasing off illegal trinket hawkers beneath the Christmas lights. Choruses of whistles as vendors warn one another of approaching police, and mad dashes by fleeing vendors, are also regular occurrences.
But most worrisome for shopowners is the dampening effect they say the vendors' presence has on the seasonal spending spirit. "Why would shoppers want to come down here when the streets look like an unsavory bazaar?" says Maribel Villagram, manager of a clothing shop. "We're not so worried about the competition because [vendors] don't have the quality we do," she adds. "But we have customers telling us they're not coming because they can't get in the door."
NOW city leaders say they are working on a plan, to be unveiled in January, that will address the street-vendor problem. Anywhere from 100,000 unregulated vendors (the official estimate) to 270,000 (shopowner organization estimate) scratch for a living every day. The plan calls for licensing and taxing a limited number of vendors for the first time, while relegating others to new shopping arcades.
Officials recognize, however, that the plan won't be the final solution to a problem that has resisted past attempts at regulation and prohibition.
"This is a problem that requires an integrated solution ... [in areas] where the proliferation has been heaviest," says Alejandro Carrillo Castro, chief administrator for the city district taking in the historic center. But he notes the real solution lies in "an improved economic situation" where new jobs in the formal sector reduce the need to resort to street vending.
Juan Caldern is a case in point. The young man used to work in a government ministry before job cutbacks left him without a post. Now he sells knockoff perfumes out of a car trunk. "My other job was better," he says. "But this puts food on the table."
Though still in the planning stages, the city's plan is already controversial among shopowners and vendors alike: Shopowners say the plan will legitimize an activity that simply shouldn't exist; vendors reject any regulation that would keep them from the most lucrative streets.
But everyone seems to agree that the street vending has grown to a point where something has to be done. At current growth rates, the Confederation of National Chambers of Commerce (CONCANACO) estimates that the informal commercial sector will equal the formal sector by 2006.
Leaders of the formal business sector say the vendors constitute unfair competition because they pay no taxes, no utilities, and little overhead. But they say rampant corruption in the informal sector is the worst problem.
"This is a corruption-fed industry we are battling," says Guillermo Gazal Jafif, head of the historic center merchants. "They operate illegally by paying off police and officials, and they sell stolen and contraband goods." Mr. Gazal, who has worked in shops for 39 years, says he is still tending wounds he suffered in a street attack by assailants connected to the vendors' leaders.
CONCONACO estimates that at least 1,600 trucks have been robbed of their merchandise this year, much of which turned up for sale on the streets.
Commerce leaders also warn that any attempt to regulate the vendors with registration and special badges will lead to more corruption. Mr. Castill Castro, who is overseeing a special program granting three-week permits for vendors in the historic center, says photo IDs and unalterable seals can make registration tamper-proof. But such assurances fail to convince others.
"These [temporary] credentials are a joke," says Jorge Rangel Rosales of CONCONACO. "There were falsified ones on the street even before the real ones were handed out."
Street vendors say they already pay their own leaders, as well as officials and police, to let them occupy their patch of sidewalk. "I already pay every day to keep this spot, but I couldn't tell you where the money goes," says Rosa Angua, who sells nylons from the top of a box. "It's all corruption."
The vendors also face roving police that are authorized to confiscate their wares. "They just take it away from us, but when we go to the police warehouse to pick it up, they say they know nothing about it," says Gabriel Hernandez, who sells candy and potato chips.
Mr. Hernandez says no attempts to regulate the street commerce will work. "This has been going on on these very streets since the time of the Aztecs," he says. "Some new plan is not going to stop tradition."
But the city of the Aztecs is going to try. "It may indeed be a tradition," Castillo Castro says. "But nothing says a tradition can't be limited and orderly."