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San José's Municipal Police increase patrols to remove unlicensed street vendors from Costa Rica's capital

The director of San José’s Municipal Police, Marcelo Solano, said this week there will be no truce for street vending in Costa Rica’s capital.

Solano issued the statement after learning the Union of Street Vendors (SINTRACOPEA) is asking for permission to allow vendors to keep selling on the streets of San José, especially during the holiday season.

December traditionally sees the largest number of unlicensed vendors on the streets and sidewalks of Costa Rica’s capital, and the San José Municipality is currently working with other government agencies to remove them, following an order from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV.

Municipal Police have been conducting patrols and confiscating merchandise from vendors who do not have a valid permit. Currently only those occupying kiosks on the corners of several street blocks in the capital are authorized.

Members of SINTRACOPEA met Tuesday to plan a response to the police actions, including collecting signatures for an appeal at the Sala IV “that would allow them to make a living,” the union’s president, Randall Zúñiga, told The Tico Times.

Street vendors, San José

Union leaders and a group of street vendors met Tuesday at San José’s Central Park to outline plans for getting permission to keep using the capital’s streets and sidewalks.
Alberto Font

The meeting was held at the capital’s Central Park, where many vendors continued selling their goods while listening to Zúñiga’s speech.

In January 2012 the Sala IV ordered the municipality “to take all necessary measures to clear the capital’s streets and sidewalks of street vendors,” in response to a lawsuit filed by Rafael Ángel Paniagua, a citizen who claimed that street vendors obstruct pedestrian traffic and affect the transit of seniors and people with visual and other disabilities.

“Street vendors infringe on the environment, public health and safety of both residents and visitors of the capital,” the court ruling stated.

In May, the Sala IV resolved a similar case and ordered the municipality, the Public Security Ministry, the Immigration Administration and the Labor Ministry to take steps to prevent street vendors from blocking traffic in San José. The court also ordered the agencies to take steps to address the social causes of the problem.

The court ordered the agencies to present, every six months, a report on all measures implemented to comply with the ruling.

Then-mayor of San José and current presidential candidate Johnny Araya said the ruling was “exaggerated, as ordering the municipality to ensure the welfare of the vendors is completely out of [the municipality’s] hands.”

On Tuesday, Zúñiga said last October the union sent a proposal to the municipality with a list of possible solutions grouped in a project called the “Rice and beans operation.” The list included 15 proposals that could be implemented mainly during the Christmas period, he added.

Among the proposals is the construction of a new market in the capital, as well as small markets in other cantons of San José.

Other recommendations included creating “truce zones,” or areas where vendors could use sidewalks and public spaces, allowing special schedules for sales on the capital’s streets, and hosting weekly fairs similar to farmers markets that take place in several locations across the country.

The union also asked for permits to sell door-to-door in neighborhoods on the outskirts of San José.

Zúñiga acknowledged that many of the proposals were short-term solutions, but they could be “a valid option, especially for this time of the year.”

Municipal Police officials, however, said the proposals are not feasible, “as the Sala IV’s rulings are clear and the country’s Penal Code guarantees free transit for people,” Solano said. “The obstacles street vendors cause in streets and on sidewalks are completely outlawed.”

Insufficient solutions

Following the Sala IV’s 2012 ruling, Araya said the municipality had already implemented solutions for street vendors, but they never accepted them.

Araya’s plan involved building markets in downtown San José. But without customers, the vendors abandoned the new markets just a few weeks after their opening.

The Paso de la Vaca market and another built in the former facilities of the Civil Registry aimed at removing vendors from the streets, but the idea failed. The only one that remains is located at the Coca-Cola market.

Zúñiga said the two markets failed because they were located in high-risk areas with little police presence. Assaults and robberies occurred daily, driving customers away.

Street vending in downtown San José

Kiosks at several corners on the capital are the only ones authorized to sell on the streets.
Alberto Font

“The government promised to relocate several bus terminals near the markets to increase customers, but it never happened,” the union’s vice president, Rafaela Obregón, said.

“For each of us accepting a spot at these new markets, there were two more vendors taking our spots on the streets,” Obregón said. “Municipal officials never were able to control the streets.”

Representatives of government agencies appointed by the Sala IV this week presented the new plan to increase security in the capital.

Solano said seizures of illegal goods would continue through the holiday season, with the support of the National Police.

“We will try our best to comply with the [Sala IV] rulings, despite the fact that we do not have sufficient resources to perform our duties,” Solano said.

Last year, Municipal Police conducted some 12,000 seizures of merchandise, but this year’s numbers are expected to be greater.

And no new markets will be built anytime soon, Solano added: “There are no funds for that. Besides, two markets were built and they are not using them.”

Contact L. Arias at

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