The State of Exception pushes out gangs and informal vendors from San Salvador's Historic Center

The Historic Center of El Salvador's capital city, San Salvador is being transformed. Streets which were once crowded and overflowing with an informal economy of street vendors have been emptied.   Historic buildings are being seen once again.  Pedestrians stroll and take selfies as the government seeks to attract tourism and investment into the heart of the City.

The overall purpose of the renovation is to encourage tourism in the Historic Center and to create a more “orderly” area of the city.  There is a new Historic Center website in Spanish and English which includes maps, virtual tours, and descriptions of available guided tours.  The site even contains links to a new smartphone app to guide visitors through the area.

But what of the vendors who formerly earned their subsistence living on those streets? They have been displaced from the center with promises of spots in municipal markets around the City.  The government says they voluntarily dismantled their posts, but many talk of their fear of the consequences of resisting during the State of Exception. The future of these thousands of participants in San Salvador's informal economy has yet to be written.   

Although known as the "Historic Center" of San Salvador, the emblematic buildings of the Historic Center are rarely much more than a century old.  The National Palace was completed in 1905 and the National Theater in 1911.  El Calvario church was finished in 1950, and the current Metropolitan Cathedral was only completed in 1999 after the end of the civil war.   

Plaza Libertad cerca 1970. Source

As the civil war pushed people from rural areas into the city and with the growing urbanization of the country, the center of San Salvador became a crowded marketplace. There were the “formal” markets housed in buildings such as the Mercado Central, the Mercado Ex-Cuartel, and the Tiendona. But also there were thousands of vendors working from makeshift stalls along the sidewalks, in the streets, and surrounding the different plazas in the center of the city.

In San Salvador, the Historic Center in blocks surrounding the National Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral has long been a hub of commerce and daily life, a bustling marketplace with thousands of street vendors, selling everything from food and clothing to electronics and handicrafts. While these vendors play a vital role in the local economy, providing cheaper produce and goods to residents, they have also created a chaotic and overcrowded environment that has long been a concern for city officials. Between the years 2000 and 2015, a series of conflicts between street vendors and the city government arose, as the latter attempted to bring order to this vibrant yet chaotic space. 

In 2015, San Salvador's government tallied 9000 vendors with established positions on the sidewalks and public ways of the center of San Salvador, plus 10,000 vendors who had push carts or carried the goods they were selling in their arms.  Other estimates put the total as high as 40,000 by the year 2020.  These are the people “si no venden no comen” – if they don’t sell they don’t eat.

Prior to 2015, various city mayors tried to “re-order” the historic center of the City to little success. Reports showed scenes of battles with armed security forces moving to evict informal vendors, and the vendors blocking streets, burning tires and throwing rocks at security forces.

This video from 2010 shows one of those confrontations as security forces battled informal vendors they were trying to evict from Calle Arce.

Although in 2013, mayor Norman Quijano proclaimed the recovery of Calle Arce, this set of photos from EDH show how informal vendors returned to Calle Arce in the years following.

Alongside the National Palace - cerca 2010

The other post-war dynamic starting in the mid-1990s, and becoming entrenched in later years, was gang control of the various districts and markets in the area. Vendors were forced to pay extortion charges to the gangs for their little stalls. Customers and vendors had their routes and locations dictated by gang boundaries. Violence for violating the rules was rife.

This map from a 2020 investigation by InsightCrime show the gang territories within the Historic Center:

The Insight Crime report describes the "renta" or extortion payments which informal vendors would need to pay the gangs:

In the MS13 areas, the gang charges vendors in the Historic Center with a fixed position an average of $1 per day, according to multiple interviews with gang members of the MS13 and Barrio 18, vendors, storefront owners, business associations and security officials. ...  Clothing or shoe retailers, for instance, could pay as much as $10 per week.

In the Barrio 18 areas, the collection system is based on space occupied rather than “commercial flow.” Police intelligence sources in the Historic Center told InSight Crime that it costs vendors $1 per square meter. They pay an extra $2.50 daily per square meter for “cleaning” and “security.” This is managed more directly by the vendors' associations who also rotate collectors to keep authorities guessing. A vendor operating in the area where the Barrio 18 holds sway confirmed these figures.

As InsightCrime explained, because the gangs profited from their ability to extort the informal vendors in this zone, they were aligned with those vendors in opposing government attempts to evict them.

Nayib Bukele became the first mayor of San Salvador to actually change the dynamics of the Historic Center. Initially he did this by secretly negotiating with the gangs. During his time as mayor (2015-2018),  Bukele took steps focused on two public plazas in the city – Plaza Barrios bordered by the Metropolitan Cathedral and National Palace and Plaza Libertad, two blocks away.

The 2020 InsightCrime investigation describes how these projects conducted while Bukele was the mayor of San Salvador required ongoing and delicate negotiations between city officials and the gangs and representatives of the informal vendors.  Bukele was also supported in this effort during his time as an FMLN mayor by the FMLN government of Sanchez Ceren which deployed troops into the historic center.

As part of his attempts to reorder the center of the city, Bukele also built a new municipal market – Mercado Cuscatlán. The report from Insight Crime and an investigation by El Faro revealed how the development of this market, and who got to locate their stalls within the new market, was dictated by negotiations between the Bukele government in San Salvador and a faction the 18th street gang.  Ultimately Mercado Cuscatlán, which was located some distance away from the Historic Center, has been a failure with few customers walking past the vendors located there.

Now the reordering of the Historic Center takes place in the context of the current State of Exception, under which due process guarantees are suspended and more than 66,000 have been detained in just one year.

The San Salvador municipal government under mayor Mario Duran has started a more wide-scale effort to evict informal vendors from dozens of blocks within the Historic Center.  Duran is a member of Bukele's Nuevas Ideas party and took office after the 2021 elections which swept NI candidates into office in the Legislative Assembly and municipal governments throughout the country. 

Duran's push to reorganize the Historic Center started in April 2022 just after the Regime of Exception had commenced.  Police and military were out in full force making arrests of persons in the Historic Center and throughout the country on suspicion of gang connections.

This new phase of "reordering" the Historic Center commenced in Calle Ruben Dario.  This video shows that street the year before the removals:

The City government proclaimed that the relocation of vendors from the street was "voluntary," and, in fact, there were no scenes of protest or violence which might have been seen a decade earlier. GatoEncerrado has this photogallery of the removal of vendors from Calle Ruben Dario in April.

Nayib Bukele tweeted this video showing Calle Ruben Dario before and after the removals.

The city government of San Salvador has been holding family and cultural events on the "recovered" Calle Ruben Dario since the vendors were removed in April 2022.  An example was these street festivals from the 2022 August San Salvador patron saint celebrations featured in this tweet from city hall:

As months have proceeded under the State of Exception, so have the removals of vendors from public streets and plazas in the Historic Center. The removals expanded with similar processes in Calle Arce, in the area near the old national library, and most recently in the area surrounding Calvary Church.  As of March 21, Duran was quoted saying that 90% of the removal of vendors had been accomplished.  That same date, the director of municipal development stated that some 5000 informal stalls had so far been removed from the city center.

The dismantling of the country's gangs during the State of Exception has also meant they no longer control the city blocks of the Historic Center, and street merchants no longer pay extortion.

Here is a video from San Salvador city government promoting the area surrounding Calvary Church where the removal of vendors occurred shortly before Semana Santa:

San Salvador Mayor Mario Duran and his staff assure the public that vendors removed themselves voluntarily:
Durán had said in that interview that the mobilization was the result of dialogue and the same version was held by Irvin Rodríguez, head of the Technical Unit for Commerce in the Public Space, at a press conference offered earlier. "Several months of dialogue and consensus have allowed thousands of self-employed merchants ... to begin voluntarily dismantling [their stalls]," he said.
But the "voluntary" nature of their departure may be overshadowed by Bukele's State of Exception.  
Oscar Martinez writing in El Faro described The Historic Center and its perpetual regime of misery:

During the Regime of Exception of the current Government, which boasts of having captured more than 65,000 "terrorists" in one year, thousands of informal vendors have been evicted from the streets of the Historic Center of the capital. Two vendors and a former leader of one of the vendors' unions told me that the regime has been the sword that the San Salvador municipal employees, accompanied by police, brandished to order the "voluntary" eviction. "If you oppose us, we'll take you off under the regime." Paraphrasing what those three people said, that was the sound of the request that they dismantle their shacks and vacate those streets. All three people requested anonymity. "Because the regime", they said. Regime, regime, regime. It is the Salvadoran word of the day.

One vendor quoted in La Prensa Grafica stated:
We have removed the stalls peacefully, and we have done it because we do not want to put our lives at risk. The mayor's office has not legally given us a place to go
Others spoke to La Prensa Grafica after being removed:
"They understand that people have not left peacefully, but have left and do not speak out of fear," says the vendor, who prefers not to reveal her name precisely out of fear. "We want to express ourselves, but we are afraid of the emergency regime and going to jail," she explains. 

A 74-year-old woman witnesses the scene, but she just cries. She says that the means that allowed her to survive for more than 20 years has disappeared. Since the Saturday that the dismantling of it began, she recounts, she remained in the area taking care of the ironwork of what used to be her post. What's left, she says as she wipes away her tears, she'll sell it for some money, while she looks for other sources of income. 

The same woman who complains of the State of Exception regime states that "the elderly have been harmed", but she also stresses that the majority of evicted merchants are women heads of household. "Some people say it looks pretty and it does look pretty, but you have to take food home too," adds another vendor.
The unanswered question is what will be the short, intermediate and long term impacts on the persons who had been obtaining the income for their families’ daily sustenance operating from informal stalls in this zone.  Although the government states that there are sufficient positions available in municipal markets in the center and throughout the City, as of today, many vendors still do not know where they will go.  

Journalist Oscar Martinez describes one such vendor:
A vendor who used to sell from a stall on the Ex-biblioteca premises, two blocks from the National Theater, today sells from a cart. She sold fruit at her stand for ten years. Today she pushes a cart with her "cachada" -- her goods to sell, trying to avoid the municipal agents, so they don't confiscate her cache. Let's define cachada in terms of the Center: what can be bought cheaply and sold a little less cheaply. Cachada is a comb and detergent and toilet paper and colored pencils and yinas, whatever arrives cheaply at the warehouses of the markets. What the shoulders can hold and fit in a wagon. What the neck can support and fits in a basket.
The informal vendors of the Historic Center will not be finding jobs in the new Starbucks, or in the cafes and restaurants the City hopes will locate there. They will not be offering guided tours to visitors off of cruise ships.  Instead, they will hope to find another place, a market stall or a slice of sidewalk, where once again they can hope to sell enough each day to feed a household.  They will hope that the customers who use to pass by in the crowded streets in the center, will somehow still pass by on the periphery of the Center.  

The Historic Center of San Salvador has been "rescued" from its overcrowded and chaotic informal marketplace and from the control of gangs.  These are goals which city planners in the capital city have held for decades.  Now their plans must include how to address the uprooting of the livelihood of  thousands of the City's poorest residents.           

si no venden no comen