The Christmas season is in high gear here, so that means the streets are clogged with shoppers--and with ambulantes, the mostly illegal street merchants who in this year of crisis have become a hot political issue.
Street vendors--nicknamed toreros, or bullfighters, because many wrap their goods up in a cape and taunt the police who chase them away--have been a fixture in Mexico City since Aztec times and have always claimed more right to sell than the municipal government was willing to grant them.
They sell an infinite variety of goods, often of illicit or uncertain provenance: herbal remedies, fake Swiss army knives, bootleg videos, Christmas lights, used and new clothing, and ersatz French perfume were just some of the wares that made downtown sidewalks impassable last weekend.
But this year's economic crisis and rising unemployment have caused their numbers to more than double from last year to 10,000 or more, swarms of them vying for space and shoppers' attention in the historic city center, clogging traffic and, officials say, promoting crime and contraband.
They are not just in the center but everywhere people congregate, lining the sidewalks in Chapultepec Park, blocking entrances to the Metro subway system and converting the central Alameda park into more a flea market than urban retreat.
In a recent study, city officials counted more than 2,500 ambulantes near entrances to Mexico City's Metro subway system, obstructing transit and posing risks because many use propane gas tanks for power.
Critics say the ambulantes reflect lawlessness in the city, an inability of the authorities to regulate commerce and discharge the duty to ensure public access to streets and sidewalks.
Hardly powerless itinerants, the ambulantes--some organized in groups that are tightly allied with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party--defiantly blame the government for having created the economic conditions that have forced them on the streets to earn an income.
"They manipulate us in an unjust way, cut the jobs, cut support for schools and then they send the police to keep us from supporting our families," said an exasperated Gilberto Salazar as he sold pens on a fold-up stand near the historical center. The former waiter and father of three said he has been without steady work for six months.
Business groups, including the 40,000-member Mexico City National Chamber of Commerce, are constantly prodding the government to clean them out, saying they steal sales from legitimate, tax-paying businesses that have their own economic woes.
Yet many merchants have themselves become part of the problem they decry by contracting with ambulantes to help sell their goods out in the streets, as well inside the stores.
Cirilo Robledo, owner of an artisan shop near the Metropolitan Cathedral, leads an association of about 200 store owners, mainly artisans, the majority of whom in past years have sold goods partly by hiring ambulantes. But this year, his members were only able to secure 35 of the 1,500 permits issued, and sales are off. So now even he is upset.
"There is a problem because the ambulantes have increased by 100%. They provoke disorder on the streets so the police come and the shoppers go away," Robledo says.
The Mexico City federal district assembly voted this year to expel the ambulantes. But the police seem unwilling or unable to keep the streets clear, despite almost daily sweeps that have left at least two dozen people injured in the last two weeks. Police look the other way when ambulantes are either politically well-connected or pay bribes, informed sources say.
But the ambulantes say the unspoken tolerance by the authorities, despite a clear mandate from the city assembly, is a sign that they have a place in the commercial life of the city and a right to make money in times of hardship. A million Mexicans have lost their jobs to this year's deep recession.
"People are looking for a way to survive, selling on the street if they have to. The problem is the authorities who try to prohibit business," said Raul Montesoro, whose mother-in-law, Alejandra Barrios Richards, leads 4,000 ambulantes and maintains strong PRI ties.
Carlos Torres Alvarez, private secretary to assembly member Leopoldo Enrastiga Santiago, said ambulantes are "hard to expel because there are many interests behind them," including political groups and police who receive bribes.
Besides, many Mexicans feel empathy for the tenacious micro-capitalists and the enormous underground economy that has developed in the midst of Mexico's economic crisis. And they are happy for the "wholesale" prices that the street merchants offer.
"It's a product of the crisis we are passing through," said Eliodoro Ramos, a painter who sells his work in a shop in the center. "They need to do this to eat. As an establishment, we don't like it, nor do the police. But you have to sympathize with them."