The PRI's Protection Racket: Maintaining Control at the Grassroots

September 25, 2007

This past September
14, a driz-
zly Thursday pre-
ceding Mexico's
September 15-16
independence cel-
ebration, a few
hundred angry-looking pepe-
nadores-garbage pickers who
scavenge the huge dumps around
Mexico City-came to the city's
center to begin a three-day occupa-
tion of the front steps of the Federal
District's Legislative Assembly
building. Shouting slogans of soli-
darity and defiance, and singing
spirited songs celebrating rebellious
Mexicans, they began perhaps the
thirtieth occupation of the year of
those prominent steps. As one of
their leaders, an imposing-looking
man in a baseball cap, encouraged
them through a bullhorn, they hung
up two large banners denouncing
endors on Juirez Avenue in downtown Mexico City. They were
ea in January
the city for not complying with its
promise to construct public housing
near the dump sites.
They arrived just before Mexico
City's riot police barricaded a ten
square-block area around the build-
ing. Trucking in their own rudimen-
tary cooking equipment, along with
two port-a-johns, the garbage pick-
ers threatened to stay just long
enough to disrupt Saturday's sched-
uled "State of the City" address by
the city's appointed mayor, Oscar
Espinosa Villareal. On Friday, the
second day of the occupation of the
Assembly steps, a truckload of tor-
tillas and a band of nortefia musi-
cians were allowed through the bar-
ricades to feed and entertain the
garbage pickers. Throughout
Friday, observers were impressed
by how gently the
police were han-
dling the occu-
piers of the Ass-
embly steps.
That same day,
a number of
other groups ar-
rived on the scene to add their voic-
es to the denunciations of the city
and federal governments, both dom-
inated by the governing Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI). They
found their way barred, however, by
the police barricades. These groups
included the dismissed bus drivers
of the dissolved municipal bus line,
Ruta 100; a militant housing-
focused neighborhood organization
called the Assembly of Barrios; and
an ad-hoc collection of street ven-
dors protesting their eviction from
the most popular streets of down-
town Mexico City.
By early Saturday morning, the
various outside-the-barricades sit-
ins and demonstrations had merged
into a loosely organized rally of sev-
eral thousand people in front of the
Fred Rosen is an editor on leave from
NACLA. He is working for the Mexico City
newspaper, El Financiero International.
city's well-manicured central park,
the Alameda. The Alameda demon-
stration was small by Mexico City
standards, but in this period of eco-
nomic crisis, it was angry, threaten-
ing, and very anti-Espinosa in tone.
It was the Mayor, after all, who had
fired the drivers, enforced the ban
against the vendors, and dragged his
feet on the construction of housing
for the poor. Beyond that, as a para-
digmatic corrupt and careerist PRI
functionary, most likely taking
orders from some of the powerful
figures held responsible for the
country's severe depression,
Espinosa was an easy target for
the crowd's frustration and anger.
As the anti-Espinosa demon-
stration outside the police barri-
cades grew in size and volubility,
the pepenadores were heating
tortillas and amiably mingling
with the police. By midday, as
they began taking up positions
around the entire front of the
building, their real mission
became clear. They were there
not to protest, but to protect the
building-and' the Mayor's
address-from the menacing
demonstrators at the Alameda.
Had the Alameda group attempted
to break through the police barri-
cades, the occupiers of the front
steps would have been there as a
second line of defense. The garbage
pickers, in short, had been brought
in as "shock troops" for the PRI.
In Mexico City, things are seldom
as they seem. The genius of the
long-ruling PRI has been its ability
to organize groups like the garbage
pickers, dole out benefits to them,
and incorporate them-albeit in a
subordinate role-into the ruling
structure. The country's worst eco-
nomic depression in 60 years, known here simply as "The Crisis,"
has, however, made this task some-
what more difficult.
Some of the protesters outside the
barricades had their own ambiguous
links to the PRI. The street vendors
were a heavily priista group,
incensed over the shrinking down-
town territory in which they were
allowed to sell. The dismissed bus
drivers of Ruta 100, despite their
radical commitments-they have
openly supported the Zapatistas in
Chiapas-were not long ago mili-
tant priistas themselves, and
allegedly played the same "shock-
troop" role for former mayor
Manuel Camacho. When Camacho
left the city government in 1993, opening a rift that culminated with
his departure from the party in late
1995, Ruta 100 lost its protection,
The genius of the PRI
has been its ability to
incorporate different groul
into the ruling structure.
The current economic
depression has made
that task more difficult.
and ultimately its existence in a
restructuring of the city bus system
linked both to privatization and the
settling of scores. Now the bus dri-
vers were unemployed and on the
wrong side of the barricades. Only
the neighborhood activists had no
evident ties to the PRI. They were
either independent, or linked to the
center-left opposition Party of the
Democratic Revolution (PRD).
"What we see on both sides of the
barricades," said a neighborhood
activist who gave her name as
Filomena, "are groups of the poor,
organized for their survival. The
pepenadores are desperate just like
us. They are our enemies today, but
everybody is here for the same rea-
son, to survive."
Over the long term, all of these
groups have been engaged in a
struggle to live, to work, and to earn
a living. This has frequently forced
them to invent and enlarge social,
political and economic structures
outside the country's formal institu-
tions. While the world's attention
has been transfixed by events
involving Mexicans at the top, the
structure of the country's ruling
institutions can perhaps best be
understood by looking at the strug-
gle for this contested space at the
"At the top," said Filomena, "the
party could be replaced without a
real change in the way we live. The
real powers-the rich, the
army, the transnational cor-
porations, the United
States-would continue to
rule. At the bottom, the real
struggle for the nation is tak-
pS ing place, in the form of the
creation of an autonomous
civil society."
his struggle is by no
means limited to the
politically active. To
survive the Crisis, Mexicans
are flocking to the cheaper
street economy, both as buy-
ers and sellers. Long-term
vendors are facing growing compe-
tition. "The number of vendors is
way up," says one vendor. "Where
before there were a hundred, now
you see a thousand. They say there
are now 200,000 in the city." Just as
the politics of sit-ins is intricately
tied into the country's party system,
the logistics of selling-or even
begging--on the street can likewise
be highly structured, and dominated
by the PRI. These local "informal"
institutions of economic and social
survival are increasingly being
fought over by groups in what is
loosely called "civil society."
In the months leading up to this
past Christmas, there were frequent
clashes in Mexico City's Historic
Center between riot police and
street vendors. After a year of mea-
ger sales, the vendors saw
Christmas as a chance to recoup
some earnings. The clashes were
sometimes spontaneous, as vendors
resisted being banned from their tra-
ditional-and not-so-traditional--
street corners. Others were out-
breaks from formally organized sit-
ins and street occupations.
Three years ago, the Mexico City
government, at the urging of the
administration of former president
Carlos Salinas de Gortari, passed a
city ordinance which prohibited
street vendors from operating in
several crucial square blocks of the
city's center. Since then, vendor
mobilization has been constant, and
in the year of the Crisis, it has
become desperate and increasingly
disorderly. On December 7, police
attacked a demonstration that had
turned into a market, not because
they objected to the street occupa-
tion, but because selling on that par-
ticular street corner (in front of the
Legislative Assembly building) was
illegal. Several people, including a
few passersby, were injured.
Occupations of city space-fes-
tive or grueling, depending on the
site, the amenities trucked in, and
the weather-are so common in the
city's Historic Center that for the
most part they go almost unnoticed
except by those who take part and,
if well-organized, by those against
whom they are directed. The street
sellers' actions attracted public
attention, at least in Mexico City,
because they highlighted a sector of
the country's faltering economy
toward which many people-one
way or another-see themselves
Following the December 7 street
fracas, city authorities backed
down and allowed 1,200 PRI-affili-
ated vendors to sell in the city cen-
ter-mostly around the central
plaza, the "Z6calo"-from Dec-
ember 12 to January 6, Mexico's
traditional Christmas season.
Vendor negotiators, the traditional
priista "leaders," were unable to
control the situation, however, and
on December 12, more than 10,000
vendors took over the streets
around the Z6calo.
"It would be unfair to allow only
a few vendors to sell their wares,"
said Guillermina Rico, the most
powerful of the priista leaders,
making the best of an uncomfort-
able situation. Rico's group of sell-
ers was allotted nearly a third of the
1,200 official permits, but as a
savvy street politician, she immedi-
ately positioned herself as the pro-
tector of the unorganized, and ended
up representing-protecting and
collecting tribute from-a good
proportion of the politically unaffil-
Authorities said they would not-
force the unlicensed vendors to
move, but that they would evict
them, using riot police, from the
Historic Center if they remained
after January 6. The vendors accept-
ed the deal.
here are now a number of
vendor organizations--called
"bandos" in Mexico City-
that are not affiliated with
the PRI. Most of them
date from the post-earth-
quake flowering of civic The P
in the late social
1980s. They tend to be
organized as independent get c
groups of mobile street
sellers, working in the
same place, or selling
similar goods. Cirilo
Robledo, the leader of a bando
called the Civic Association of the
Artisans of the Historic Center, says
his group came together in 1988 in
an attempt simply to be indepen-
dent. "The PRI put conditions on
our membership-going to rallies,
demonstrations, all that," he says.
"We have some contacts with the
PRD, but they are loose and distant.
When we have rallies, it's to pres-
sure the authorities [for our own
purposes], not to support one of
their candidates."
These non-affiliated bandos,
however, are not out of the reach of
the PRI. "The city is making
money, even here [in this indepen-
dent space]," says Robledo. "The
inspectors come around and charge
for space, for cleaning, for protec-
tion. We don't charge the same quo-
tas as the PRI, but our vendors still
Those who don't belong to a
bando, and who have no official
permission to sell in a particular
place are called "toreros"-bull-
fighters-for the way they provoke
and dodge the authorities. "We keep
our distance from the authorities
here," says Berta Rodriguez, one of
the toreros on the Z6calo. "Most
people on the Z6calo, even the beg-
gars, receive permission and pay a
quota, but then all the middle people
take a cut. The leaders get permis-
sion, credentials from the PRI. I
worked with Guillermina Rico, sell-
ing shoes and sandals that I bought,
but I quit because I didn't like the
Although Rodriguez, a leather-
and-cloth craftswoman, is constant-
RI takes over the space for
participation, and people
onverted from activists to
ly on the lookout for the police, she
says she is happy to be free of the
obligations of the official bandos.
"The first obligation is money, and
then politics," Rodriguez confides.
"Guillermina [the priista leader]
manages and manipulates very
well. If I want a space with her, she
will sell it. She has an understand-
ing with the authorities, and takes
care of things. You pay a weekly
quota of 30-50 pesos-more in the
best areas. Then, when a candidate
or an official shows up, you are
given a green smock that identifies
you, you go to the rally, and you
Street vendors protesting attempts to reduce their selling space clash with riot police in
Mexico City in September; 1995.
cheer and applaud. 'The greens are
here,' they say, and send us to a cor-
ner of the crowd. They also call us
'sheep.' That's what Guillermina
does for the PRI-besides passing
on our quotas to the party after she
takes her cut. If you don't accept
that, you're out of the bando, you
can't sell; you have problems. If
you don't belong to an official
bando, you pay more to inspectors;
you suffer more on the streets; you
have less protection. But I got tired.
I didn't want to be a sheep any-
At the center of all this is the
world's longest continuous-
ly ruling party, the PRI, in
power since 1929, and hegemonic
since the country's revered presi-
dent, Lizaro Cirdenas, established
its corporate structure in the mid-
1930s. Recognizing the "informal"
nature of urban life in a poor coun-
try, Cdrdenas made the "popular
organizations" one of the four pil-
lars-along with organized labor,
the organized peasantry and the mil-
itary-of the party. The military, unlike the other three sectors, was
never formally incorporated into the
PRI, but has remained a crucial base
of support.
The "popular" wing of the PRI
was originally organized as a feder-
ation of public employees, but
expanded into the National
Congress of Popular Organizations
(CNOP) in 1946. It was charged
with bringing a wide variety of peo-
ple, including the street vendors
and garbage pickers, and groups as
disparate as taxi drivers, tenants,
homeowners, beggars, the home-
less, and the disabled, into the
ambit of the ruling party. The party
would protect and defend their
interests, and they would pay their
dues, vote the right way, get others
to vote the right way, and help keep
the party in power.
In 1993, the Salinas administra-
tion, in an attempted intra-party
coup, tried to bypass the local lead-
ers and power brokers and to install
in their place "technocratic" lead-
ers-loyal only to the "moderniz-
ing," neoliberal projects of the cen-
tral government. Mid-level "politi-
cal" leaders correctly perceived the
threat to their power, resisted the
move, and prevailed. The name of
the organization was changed to the
National Front of Organizations
and Citizens (FNOC), but its corpo-
rate structure remained essentially
It is the FNOC to which the pri-
ista leaders of the street vendors
and the pepenadores belong, and
from which they derive their
power. The FNOC, in turn, has
links to virtually all of Mexico's
municipal governments, mediating
the needs of local government and
the needs of the various non-union
"popular" sectors like the street
The structure is now facing mul-
tiple challenges, the most vigorous
of which have come from the inde-
pendent urban popular movements,
like the Assembly of Barrios. But
"organizing in this PRI-dominated
country is a constant challenge,"
says Francisco Saucedo, a former
PRD federal deputy and one of the
founders of the militant coalition of
neighborhood groups. "A lot of our
work has been institutionalized,
officialized, incorporated and verti-
calized by the party. The PRI learns
from us, and makes our programs
theirs. The space for social partici-
pation gets taken over, and people
are converted from activists into
petitioners. The Mexican state cor-
rupts these struggles. We want to
democratize them."
Shortly after midnight, in the
early hours of Sunday, January 7,
the semi-permanent metallic struc-
tures used by street vendors in the
contested city center were pulled or
chopped down by city officials. The
action met with little or no resis-
tance. Even the most powerful of
the vendors' leaders had their
places destroyed. Guillermina Rico
attempted to call the FNOC and
city offices to stop the destruction
of her vendors' stands, but, at three
in the morning, no one answered
the phones. A spokesperson for the
city, Jesus Davila Narro, said the
early-morning operation showed
"the willingness of all parties to
comply with the accords," and "live
in a society of consensus."
Throughout the morning, the streets
continued to empty, and the system
renewed itself.

Tags: Mexico, PRI, patronage, grassroots organizing, streetsellers

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