San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Street Vendors Play Cat and Mouse

On a gloomy Wednesday afternoon in downtown San José, dozens of roaming  street vendors crept out of the alleyways and small crevices between buildings along Avenida Central. They took a careful look around, and then opened large, black garbage bags filled with everything from shoelaces to DVDs.

Most had taken a few hours off after a fierce October downpour but, amidst the evening pedestrian rush, shouts of “películas, música, juguetes, películas” returned to the walkway.

These sights and sounds are familiar to anyone who has walked along the pedestrian mall in the capital city’s center. But if the Municipality of San José has its way, these scenes won’t be the rule much longer.

San José Mayor Johnny Araya announced a week ago that the city will launch a “comprehensive operation” to remove an estimated 500 illegal hucksters from the downtown promenade.

City officials said they will hold meetings with the Health Ministry and the National Police to determine an “intelligent strategy” to expel vendors from their usual downtown business hub.

Marcelo Solano, general coordinator of the Municipal Police’s citizen security arm, said that not only are the sales illegal, but vendors take up valuable city space and irritate civilians on their way to and fro.

“The object of this plan is to make sure not a single person exercises illegal sales in this zone,” he said. “There are many serious problems with this, from unemployment to lack of education, and it’s not something we wish to empower in our city.”

Solano said the city will step up municipal and National Police presence and arrest “quickly and without hesitation” any traveling vendor who sells goods along the avenue.

For some, though, the enactment of this new plan would mean the disappearance of a long-enjoyed backdrop to city life.

Liliana Chacón has worked as a waitress at Casa del Toro on Avenida Central for 22 years. On a slow day at the restaurant, she prefers to sit outside and watch the action.

“It’s like a movie out here some days,” Chacón said as she cracked a smile. “They sell and sell and sell. Then the police arrive and they scream ‘ojo ojo ojo’ (watch out) and grab their things and run. Then they come back and sell and sell and sell. It’s a part of downtown San José.”

Chacon said she has rarely seen a merchant bother a passerby and called their work “fun to watch.”

But entertaining or not, some vendors have left an ugly scar on San José.

In the last six months, the wandering hawkers have caused ¢30 million (more than $51,000) worth of damage to city property. Merchants damaged two municipal police motorcycles, five city vehicles and 12 police shields, according to the municipality of San José.

During confrontations with the police, some vendors have pulled bricks out of the boulevard and hurled them at approaching forces. A police officer who was hit in the face with a stone appeared on a recent Channel 11 TV news report. He received 12 stitches between his forehead and eyebrow.

Since June, some 19 law enforcement officers have been injured during clashes with traveling street venders.

Mayor Araya recently told the daily La Nacion that “many vendors have a delinquent attitude” and that the “street vendor profile has changed from people from the country who come to make a living in the city to those with other behaviors.”

María, who has sold pink, yellow and light blue shoelaces downtown for three years, said that those who cause damage are not representative of the majority of vendors.

“Sure, it has happened. But they are only a few,” she said. “Most of us just want to make a living. But if they kick us out of here totally, we’ll find somewhere else to go.”

Even Solano admitted that the city probably will not end sales completely with their new plan and that traveling vendors will likely start working in pockets of the city where police presence is low. Ultimately, he said, the city will have to create more jobs and options for these San José ramblers.

The city considered implementing a license program 10 years ago. Officials decided against it because it would mean granting a small space to vendors that was originally designed for everyone.

But until city hall can devise a plan that involves more than mere heightened police surveillance, traveling vendors and authorities will continue to play a ceaseless game of hide and seek.

“We will always be around somehow,” said María. “We know all the nooks and crannies of this city. They don’t have enough police to put them on every corner.”


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