MEXICO CITY—Fight your way through parts of downtown Mexico City and you'll understand why Mayor Marcelo Ebrard wants to clean up this town. Street vendors selling tacos, bootleg CDs and cut-rate clothing have converted the symbolic heart of Mexico into a gigantic swap meet.
His administration plans to relocate thousands of these bootstrap merchants, who block traffic, impede pedestrians, strew trash and evade taxes. But standing in his way is a 63-year-old ex-con and great-grandmother who has her own agenda.
That would be Alejandra Barrios Richard, leader of the largest association of sidewalk hawkers in the capital's historic center. Her 5,000-strong army occupies some of the most valuable real estate in Mexico, hard-won territory that the scrappy Barrios won't relinquish easily.
Over the last 30 years, she has risen from humble fruit seller to one of the most powerful street bosses in the city, using a formidable combination of personal charm, savvy negotiating skills and bare-knuckle brawling.
Her members have staged marches and sit-ins to protest police crackdowns on their operations. They have clashed with other vendor groups over turf; in 2003, Barrios was charged with the shooting death of the husband of a rival leader as part of one such dispute. She spent more than two years in a notorious Mexico City lockup before being released for lack of evidence.
The episode only added to her legend. Mariachis serenaded her from outside the prison walls on her birthday. Children prayed for her liberation. Barrios steadfastly proclaimed her innocence, emerging from the slammer to jubilant followers who greeted her like a conquering hero.
"When she walks these streets, people address her as 'Señora Alejandra,' " said Antonia Medina Espinoza, who sells gorditas and flautas in the city center. "They show respect."
Such loyalty infuriates business groups that say street hawkers are at the core of an underground economy that is swallowing entire industries in Mexico. It's estimated that, in the capital alone, as many as 500,000 ply their trade, providing a sales force for pirated music and movies, knockoff designer clothes and other fake goods.
The vendors undercut legitimate merchants and shortchange the government because they don't pay taxes, critics say. They degrade urban life by hijacking public spaces while enriching leaders such as Barrios, whose multimillion-dollar organization includes lawyers, accountants, even a publicist.
But Barrios has delivered for her followers, who pay "dues" to her to secure a piece of precious pavement. Her organization has built housing for vendors and offered them no-interest financing in a country where most would find it impossible to get a conventional mortgage. The group operates a low-cost preschool for members' children and provides occasional bonuses such as food baskets.
Above all, Barrios has carved out a space for poor people to earn a living in an economy that has proved incapable of creating enough jobs for its citizens.
"The government gives them nothing," Barrios said. "They have confidence in me. I defend them."
A Mexico City native and fourth-generation vendor, Barrios got her start as a child, peddling plastic tablecloths in her family's stall. She moved on to frying pans, fresh fruit and some shadier stuff known as fayuca -- stolen goods or contraband merchandise smuggled into the country to avoid import duties.
Barrios' husband, Javier Sanchez Becera, said the couple got busted in 1982 with a truck full of smuggled stereo equipment and videocassettes brought from the United States. He said they both served nine months in prison in Monterrey, time Barrios used to earn her secundaria certificate, the equivalent of a ninth-grade diploma in the United States.
Jail is a familiar stop for Mexico's street vendors, many of whom have had run-ins with the law. Barrios said constant harassment and extortion by police led her to band together with a few dozen merchants in 1984 to defend themselves.
Barrios quickly emerged as leader of the Legitimate Civic and Commercial Assn., a transition that didn't surprise her husband, who has known her since they both were kids. He said the 5-foot-2-inch Barrios once made him stop the car so she could confront a man who was beating his wife on the street.
"She is brave," he said, shaking his head, laughing at the memory. "Tenacious."
But her political instincts and negotiating skills are what enabled her to prosper. A longtime member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000, Barrios forged alliances with party officials that were beneficial for both sides, said Alfonso Hernandez, director of the Center for Tepito Studies and an expert on the capital's itinerant vendors.
He said the typical arrangement is that vendor leaders deliver votes and cash in exchange for public spaces for their members to operate without being hassled by authorities. With three dozen organizations and an estimated 12,000 hawkers operating in the historic center -- a 1.25-square-mile area that encompasses the famed central square known as the Zocalo -- competition is fierce.