In 2016, the leaders of several street vendor organizations from the Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito met with local officials with a request: They wanted the capital city’s new constitution to codify their right to sell in public spaces. Street vendors like them, they argued, were an essential sector of the urban economy. In exchange for their legalization, they offered to submit to regulation and taxation.
The image of vendors gathered around a table with officials is not one most would associate with Tepito, best known as Mexico City’s barrio bravo, its fiercest neighborhood. Located only a few blocks north of the city’s historic center, Tepito is synonymous with lawlessness and illicit enterprise. Beneath the bright plastic tarps that line its streets, one can buy just about anything, from pirated DVDs to Swiss watches to exotic animals. It is also the home base of the drug-trafficking and extortion racket La Unión Tepito and its rival La Fuerza Anti-Unión, whose turf wars drove a recent surge in homicides.
Tepiteños, as the area’s residents are known, have long celebrated their autonomy. They have resisted efforts to tame the area through policing or gentrification by any means necessary. The mantra “Tepito exists because it resists” is graffitied on walls and repeated by residents. Yet Tepito perseveres not from its isolation and defensiveness, but from its powerful connections. For centuries, vendors who have labored in the gray areas of the law have forged relationships with government officials to sustain their trades. Informal markets like Tepito persist with the help of state actors—not in spite of them.
The association between Tepito and illicit commerce dates to the early 20th century, when a second-hand market called the Baratillo (derived from barato, or cheap) moved to the area. The Baratillo was a colonial-era institution originally located in the Plaza Mayor—now Zócalo—that offered clothing, tools, furniture, and books. New, used, and stolen items mixed indiscriminately with one another, blurring the lines between legality and criminality. Considering the market an eyesore and a threat to public order, colonial and national officials pushed it out of the city center. In 1902, the Baratillo settled for good in Tepito, then a poor, outlying neighborhood. It flourished. By mid-century, the market and its neighborhood had become synonymous, known collectively as Tepito.
As Mexico’s economy evolved, so too did the goods on offer in Tepito. At the beginning of the 20th century, signs of the country’s nascent industrialization—telegraph wire, pharmaceutical products, scientific instruments—began appearing alongside the piles of scrap metal and old furniture. In the 1930s, shoppers could find stolen radios, as well as marijuana. During the 1970s and ’80s, vendors began specializing in fayuca, the colloquial term for contraband goods that evaded the high tariffs and import restrictions of that era. Tepito put TVs, stereos, and sneakers within reach of Mexico City’s middle and working classes. Toward the end of the century, as Mexico opened its economy to the world, piratería—pirated, or knock-off goods—began to line Tepito’s alleys. Korean and Chinese merchants gained a particular foothold.
The latest evolution in this long retail trade, narcotrafficking, has become central to Tepito’s economy since the 1990s. The organization La Unión Tepito began as a protection racket, extracting payments from local merchants in exchange for promises of security. As drug consumption in and around Mexico City soared, La Unión turned to supplying that market. But even as La Unión worked to corner the city’s retail drug trade, it remained steeped in Tepito’s core business of piratería. By 2020, the organization dominated the market for pirated goods in the capital. It even replaced Tepito’s famed “Marco Polos,” who travel to China to procure merchandise, with its own members.
Just as drugs are simply the latest iteration of merchandise to be sold in Tepito, its vendors’ political strategies—such as the 2016 rendezvous with officials— from a long tradition of activism stretching back to the baratilleros of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As early as the 1840s, vendors published letters in Mexico’s leading newspapers defending the social and economic benefits of the Baratillo. They lobbied elected officials to prevent them from disbanding the market, meeting with city councilmen in their homes and showing up at meetings. The connections between vendors and the city’s municipal government, which relied on the rents vendors paid to sell in public streets and plazas, ran especially deep. After the Mexican Revolution and the ratification of the 1917 Constitution, vendors in Tepito and elsewhere organized in unions, establishing close ties with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Today, Tepito’s merchants belong to dozens of vendor organizations, each with its own political links. Vendors pay daily fees to the organizations’ leaders, who negotiate with Mexico City’s borough governments for access to street and sidewalk space. Those leaders also advocate for larger reforms, such as the clause in the 2016 city constitution codifying vendors’ right to earn a living by selling their wares in public spaces.
Criminal groups like La Unión Tepito have their own political strategies, which depend on incorporating police and government officials into their networks, or, less commonly, getting their associates appointed or elected to positions in local government. While some agents of the state end up on the payrolls of organized crime, others, especially those in elected office, benefit from less obviously corrupt alliances. The shadow economy is big business, and Tepito’s outsized importance gives its vendors and residents significant political clout.
No modern-day figure represents the thick connections between Tepito and the political arena than Sandra Cuevas, head of government of Mexico City’s central Cuauhtémoc borough. Raised in Tepito, where she worked in her parents’ appliance business, her governing style bears much in common with Tepito’s own personality. Deemed “ungovernable” by the newspaper El País, Cuevas has reveled in her defiance of just about everybody throughout her political career. She sparred continuously with former Mexico City mayor and now presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum. She has refused to back down from unpopular decisions, such as whitewashing the hand-painted rótulos on vendors’ kiosks that color Mexico City’s streetscapes and ordering some of the city’s beloved street art painted over—including murals in Tepito.
Cuevas rose to one of the highest elected offices in Mexico City with support from Tepito’s vendor organizations. She promised that she would stop the extortions from criminal groups that saddle them with payments of up to 250 pesos per day—though people claiming to act on her behalf and members of her own family have been accused of demanding such payments themselves. There are also rumors, which Cuevas denies, that she has links to La Unión.
The ascent of both Cuevas and La Unión attest to a key aspect of Tepito’s enduring power: the symbiosis between extralegal commerce, in all its forms, and the Mexican state. Though Tepito may be shorthand for lawlessness, its merchants and residents work with the government as much as against it. Contemporary vendors, like the baratilleros before them, leverage the economic value of their trades to build alliances that protect their interests. In Tepito, resistance includes the ability to straddle Mexico’s underground and official worlds, and to exploit the many linkages between them.