David rocks back and forth in the swaying train car. His hair, shaved short on the sides and hanging long on top, sways with him. His voice is soft and friendly in conversation but drops an octave, hitting the hard, familiar tone of a sales pitch in the depths of the metro. Today, David sells a pirated documentary called The Garbage We Eat. His bellowing spiel—using terms like “saturated fats”, “refined sugars”, and what seems to be a rough translation of “pink slime”—echoes down the hot, packed cars.
Finally, David lands a sale to a young woman. He grabs five coins out of his pink Hello Kitty jacket, each worth 10 pesos. “It’s all I’ve made today. It’s a bad day.” 4:00 p.m., Tuesday, and only USD 4 to show for it.
David is one of thousands of informal vendors who rely on small sales made on Mexico City’s metro. Known as vagoneros (roughly, “wagoneers”) for the train wagons they ride, they have long been a staple of the megacity’s public transit, hawking as many cheap goods as they can convince weary commuters to buy.
But the last couple months have combined into a collective bad day for vagoneros. Since December 2013, metro authorities (and a reported 1,200 police officers) have ratcheted up efforts to kick out vendors like David and stop the selling.
Above every turnstile, a sign now reminds vendors that their livelihood is illegitimate: “Informal vending is prohibited in the metro.”
“The vagoneros have a social and economic role for chilangos [Mexico City residents],” says Sandra Ruiz, a researcher of informal workers at Mexico City’s Universidad Americana. “The occupation is part of our social fabric.”
Vagoneros have existed nearly since opening day of the metro in 1969. For decades, passengers have purchased pens, snacks, candy, CDs, maps, batteries, bubbles, mini-screwdrivers, coloring books, and beginner’s English guides— among thousands of other offerings—from the roaming salespeople. Vendors have traditionally organized into seven groups, divvying up sections of the more than 225 kilometers across 12 lines. Group leaders charge member fees, keep order, pay protection bribes, and look out for their own.
As street vending goes, the vagonero gig is coveted. Sellers with a solid eye for what’s selling well can earn a few hundred pesos per day (USD 20–30) in a city where the minimum wage is just 67 pesos daily (less than USD 5). No one—not even Sandra, who has spent her career studying the vendors—knows exactly how many there are, but a common estimate is 4,000 full-timers, with thousands more part-timers filling in on evenings or weekends.
After the appointment of a new metro director in 2013 with a wish to uphold rules, the pressure has been on, and vendors have been unable to reach an under-the-table deal with city officials. Posters with the slogan, “If you don’t buy, they’ll disappear,” covered train cars for months. Without the protection of lawmakers on the take, each vendor now fends for himself among a gauntlet of cops, security, undercovers, and steep fines. The numbers have, not surprisingly, dwindled.
Police and metro security carry out multiple raids per day, pulling dozens of vagoneros at a time from stations. They must pay a 750-peso (USD 55) fine for the infraction (officially recorded as “obstructing traffic” since no actual fine exists for unauthorized vending) or serve a 13-hour jail sentence in El Torito, a facility better known as the city’s drunk tank.
Despite the campaign slogan, authorities know they can’t just make vagoneros disappear. A transition package offers 2,000 pesos (USD 150) per month and job retraining classes (electrician and beautician are the most common) in exchange for a signature to stop selling in the metro. About 1,200 people have signed up. But on any given day, especially weekends, the shouts of vendors remind that not all are convinced.
David, 26, worked his way into the vagonero structure about a decade ago when he needed money for nursing school. He worked around part-time classes but three years ago could no longer afford school. Last week, the gas company cut his line. “Right now,” he says, “it’s either eat or study.”
On this Tuesday afternoon, police pack David’s regular station. He’s been arrested a handful of times since December and always opts for jail time, unwilling to forfeit a couple days’ worth of earnings on the fine.
Wary of an upcoming sweep, he joins the only two vagoneros—two brothers named Little and Big Tamba—on his splintered crew. “Every day at about noon, they’ll do a sweep of the station,” says the younger of the brothers.
The Tamba brothers have been vagoneros for decades and describe it as “their craft”, one they’ve spent years perfecting. They know staggering amounts about the metro, from daily ridership to scandals of the officials who run it to what goods sell best on what days.
Today the brothers sell Mexico City maps. Their speaker backpacks—1,000 pesos (USD 75) each—normally used to promote CDs, were recently confiscated by police. They say passengers are now more reluctant to buy from them and that they’re barely getting by, short on rent and grocery money.
For now, it’s about choosing the right goods to sell: those that fit discreetly in a backpack and can be quickly hidden in pockets, mid-sale if necessary. And, they have switched to more positive goods with lasting value, in hopes of encouraging potential buyers: documentaries about food safety instead of pirated action movies; maps and cookbooks instead of gum. Adapting and changing on the fly remain preferable to other options.
During previous police crackdowns, the brothers looked for jobs outside the metro. Big Tamba considered a market stall in Nezahualcóyotl, a poor, violent chunk of the urban sprawl. Having seen neighbors and friends extorted into bankruptcy or murdered by the cartel that runs the market, he balked: “I either work for the cartel or I work here.” Other friends—former vagoneros—recently extended an invite to their car theft ring, thinking that if police will chase them anyway, it may as well be for bigger profits. Big Tamba says he isn’t that desperate yet.
David and the Tamba brothers were burned by the last government proposal in 2009, which gave them small business training and metro vending stalls. Those stalls remain empty in a dank underground hallway on Line Four, the system’s least trafficked line, and these three remain against signing up for the new training initiatives.
David doesn’t see himself a lifetime vagonero, but nursing isn’t available through the government program, and he can’t live on the 2,000-peso (USD 150) stipend.
Chilangos become vagoneros for different reasons, explains Sandra, the university researcher. “Students make money here to study, single mothers sell here in their free time, and some are just coming out of jail” and can’t get a job with their criminal record.
Government transition plans may aim to help but are not tailored to who vagoneros are and what drives them. Single mothers, students, former criminals, lifers: they vagonear for different reasons, and they’ll leave for different reasons.
So far, Sandra says, the government is simply attacking informal vendors—and not addressing root causes of why they are there, such as lack of gainful employment or desire to steer clear of the criminal economy.
Back on the platform, David watches passengers’ feet, one of the most important skills he’s been forced to learn.
“It’s their boots,” he says of metro security. “They all wear the same boots.” He points out two older men standing next to each other in slacks and button-up shirts, holding matching briefcases. Sure enough, they both sport identical, clunky, ankle-high black leather boots, an odd—and for David, crucial—display of work uniformity. He’ll wait for the next train. His strategy: “Don’t get caught. After that, the future’s uncertain.”
Commotion arises at the end of the platform. Two men in street clothes push another man towards the stairs, hands behind his back. The Tambas brothers come closer.
It seems two plainclothes cops just nabbed a pal of theirs. “Nah,” says Big Tamba. “The guys holding him are vagoneros. That guy tried to steal a lady’s purse.” The vagoneros deliver him to the station’s lone police officer, who sleepily watches the turnstiles.