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Need a Mixtape? The Harsh Times Facing Mexico City’s Informal Subway Vendors

For some, they're a part of Mexico City's vivid cultural kaleidoscope. For others, the informal metro vendors are a nuisance to be endured.
Photo by Annick Donkers

A sleepy Sunday afternoon at a subway station in the north of Mexico City is interrupted by battle cries as some thirty uniformed police rush toward the underground platforms.

The recent unannounced raid on informal subway workers is part of a law enforcement operation that vendors have come to nickname La Barredora, or "The Sweep."

Moments later, the cops return with bags and boxes full of confiscated goods, and half a dozen vendors are dragged away by agents of the capital's Financial and Industrial Police.


Life has rarely been so tough for Mexico City's thousands of vagoneros, or informal Metro vendors.

"It's either cough up 600 pesos [$35] or spend the night in jail," Kevin, a 26-year-old vendor, told VICE News during a busy afternoon's work. "If you're lucky, you might get to keep your merchandise."

Expertly weaving their way through the crowds on one of the world's busiest subways — about 4.5 million people use the system daily — the vagoneros are the men, women, and frequently also children who move up and down the trains selling candy, CDs, trinkets, and just about anything else you might be looking for on a daily commute.

Jose, a vendor, sells MP3 mixtapes on a Mexico City subway car. (All photos by Annick Donkers.)

For some, they're a part of Mexico City's vivid cultural kaleidoscope. For others, they're a nuisance to be endured.

Forget a quiet, hassle-free journey as the sound of vendors' cries, pirated Hollywood movies and boom boxes playing everything from banda to Britney drown out the whoosh of the trains.

The vendors also compete with solicitors, often poor or indigenous Mexicans who leave tiny printed notes on the laps of riders, asking for any spare peso, or people who have been maimed, or dealt any other tragic blow from life.

'The vendors are the principal complaint that customers have about the Metro.'

The industry is substantial. The Mexico City Metro boasts a sprawling twelve lines and 195 stations. Authorities estimate that some 2,800 vagonero vendors work the trains, the majority of them pushed into the informal economy for a lack of better opportunities.


Hawking items on the Metro is not officially a crime. It is, however, against the regulations of the gargantuan city agency that oversees the subway, the Collective Transport System, or STC. The gray area has permitted vagoneros to work off the books for decades.

Authorities tolerated their presence as long as they received alleged kickbacks from organized groups of vendors. Yet the current crackdown, officially dubbed "Operation Zero Tolerance," has seen the deployment of over a thousand police and the detention of hundreds of people in recent weeks.

"The vendors are the principal complaint that customers have about the Metro," subway director Jorge Gaviño said in a press conference ahead of the launch of the operation in mid-August. "We're looking to gradually limit their presence."

In 2013, Metro authorities raised ticket prices from three pesos to five, a hike they attributed to faltering investment and a need to improve the overall quality of service.

Another key goal expressed by the agency was to do away with informal vending. Two years later, clearly that hasn't happened.

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Police frequently confiscate the goods that vendors hawk on the trains.

The vagoneros of Mexico City come in all shapes and sizes. Clowns, jugglers, musicians, wannabe crooners, and the blind all take to the Metro cars to make a living.

In many cases, entire families work the trains. Vendors even fall into subgroups such as bocineros (literally, "boom-boxers"), for their use of full-volume speakers strapped to their backs or hidden in backpacks, and pasilleros who set up business in the labyrinthine passageways leading to the platforms.


'It's like the way somebody else goes to the office.'

"My father, brother, and sister are all vagoneros," says Rene, 39, who began his vending career when he was eight. "Sundays are the most profitable; that's when you gotta get out there and do the legwork."

A vendor of various goods from school books to fashion accessories, Rene told VICE News that on an average day he makes up to 200 pesos, or $12 at the current exchange rate. He uses up to half of that to buy more merchandise from Mexico City's sprawling Merced market.

"It's like any other business, in that you invest and you recoup," he said. "Twenty years ago, my family could make a decent living doing this. But the way the economy is today, it's much harder. I think it's the same for most Mexicans these days."

Kevin waits to board a subway train.

Rene works the enormously busy so-called blue line, which cuts through the city from northeast to south. He rides the trains from 11 am to 6 pm, six days a week. Dedication is everything, he said.

"Some vendors are lazy. They work an hour, go off and eat; work an hour, go out and chat with their friends. They never make money and then they complain," Rene said, during a break on his shift near the downtown Bellas Artes station.

"I treat it like a job; it's like the way somebody else goes to the office."

Rene dismissed the claim by authorities that the Mexico City public is tired of the vagoneros.

"They can buy stuff cheaper from us," he said. "Sure, when it's rush hour and the Metro is jammed, it's frustrating for everybody, but you'd be crazy to try and work at those times anyway."


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Like many of Mexico City's informal laborers, the majority of vagoneros are organized into unofficial unions that traditionally paid bribes to mid-level Metro authorities and the official subway employees' union for permission to work. Yet vagoneros interviewed by VICE News shared cell phone footage that showed heavy-handed tactics by police, and the frequent theft of the vendors' wares.

"There are líderes [leaders] and there are encargados [supervisors]," said Jose, 27, who belongs to an old-school family of vendors and has worked the subway for 18 years. "To work a line or route, it's best to ask permission from them to avoid any problems."

Kevin, who sells cell phone and accessories for Apple products on the red line in the north of the city, said there are benefits to belonging to a vendor association — but even those are now at risk.

'The worst is when they try to frame you by planting drugs in your backpack.'

"You have protection from extortion," he said. "The leaders would pay off whoever needed to be paid off. Now, the city government has sent in the PBI [the Financial and Industrial Police], and they're pursuing everyone, the leaders included."

"Nobody feels safe anymore," he added.

In clip, subway vendors and police in a melee in July at Metro Balderas.

For the time being, at least, Operation Zero Tolerance looks unlikely to succeed. Jose's younger brother Ramon was recently detained in a police sweep. Yet two days later, having paid the 600-peso fine, he was free and back selling CDs on his usual route.


"Normally, you'll just spend a night in lock-up and avoid paying the fine," Roman told VICE News.

"They've beaten me up a couple of times," he went on. "It happens. The worst is when they try to frame you by planting drugs or something in your backpack, or when they get rough with women and kids … That's unacceptable."

Vagoneros showed VICE News cell phone footage of several raids in which vendors were pinned to the ground and dealt blows by officers.

As a result, vendors on the red line have formed a WhatsApp group to notify each other of imminent sweeps. Usually, they dump their goods in a safe place and avoid working the trains until the cops disappear.

Yet there is also genuine anger on the part of vendors who until recently worked the trains unhindered. In recent months, several tense standoffs have occurred at Metro stations around the city.

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Kevin also keeps a cell-phone repair stand in a subway corridor.

"It's true, things get out of hand sometimes," said a police officer interviewed by VICE News. "But it's usually because they are making life difficult for us. We are just trying to do our job like anybody else."

In a statement, the PBI told VICE News that the operation was necessary to rein in the vendors and improve the quality of service for Metro passengers.

"It's a professional, well-coordinated operation with considerable public support. The idea is that we create a deterrent for people who abuse the public transport system."


Passengers who spoke to VICE News expressed mixed feelings about both the vagoneros and the ongoing crackdown.

"Sure, they're making a living, but there are just too many of them," insisted one commuter. "The Metro is a big enough hassle without them."

"What else do you expect people to do in this city?" said another. "And how do you intend to keep them out? It's just another publicity stunt by the city government."

"Sometimes you don't want to show up anymore," Kevin said, as he prepared for another day at work. "But you're not going to see people give up vending. Most of us have no other choice. The Metro belongs to everybody, and the vagoneros are here to stay."

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Follow Paul Imison on Twitter: @paulimison