Ecuador’s Cachinerías: Forbidden by Law, Treasure Trove for Thrifters

Ecuador 2015

By Nitasha Natu

November 11, 2015

Also published by The Times of India

Six blocks from Plaza San Francisco, tarpaulins and spread-out sheets take over a maze of alleys in Ecuador's capital city every Saturday. Men, dressed in worn-out jackets, hover around mounds of shirts, ornaments, backpacks, stuffed animals and a host of other knick-knacks put out for sale at the San Roque market. Buyers, a mix of foreigners and locals, take their time to browse through the wares. But not everything is hunky-dory. 

Last year, a police raid revealed goods of doubtful origins at some of the units in San Roque. Ecuadorians call such spaces 'Cachinerias'__ a meeting spot for demand and supply of stolen goods, not unlike Mumbai's 'Chor Bazaar.' Over 53,000 illegal goods were seized across the country during police crackdowns in the first three-quarters of this year. But buyers continue to turn up. 

The market at San Roque is open on all days of the week. It is busiest on Saturdays when most Quito residents step out to shop. The narrow alleys are more popular with shoppers than the main building that stands at the centre. Rows of furniture stores, where workers are bent over wooden sofas and chairs, are followed by units selling rubber boots. "Only 70 cents," says an old man, his front teeth missing, as he points towards a pile of remote controls, each of a different shape. He appears to be fully prepared to gather his wares and dart across the stretch if a police vehicle passes by. 

There are few female vendors. "Sometimes in the evening, we see men bring in goods that are stolen from other areas. These goods are later sold in the alleys of San Roque. Shopkeepers having permanent establishments, like me, are threatened into silence," says a 50-year-old woman who has been running a meat store in the market for the past two decades. She requests that her identity be kept confidential. 

According to the Ministerio del Interior's (Ministry of Interior) website, over 8,000 goods were seized in 43 police operations in the Quito Metropolitan District alone between January and September 2015. Twenty one businesses were shut down. Besides San Roque, the police cracked down on Cachinerias in Cardenal de la Torre in the south of Quito in the past year, and in Avenue El Inca and Cotocollao in the north of Quito. Illegal goods were also seized from other Ecuadorian cities such as Guayaquil, Cuenca and Lago Agrio. "Our raids will be more frequent if citizens call up with information whenever they come across goods having doubtful origins," says a police official. 

A 20 minute walk from San Roque leads to the Montufar mall, a multi-storeyed structure guarded by a group of private securitymen. The specialty is electronics; endless rows of shops sell mobile phones, computer accessories, television sets, power banks and batteries. A sign at the entrance to the mall cautions buyers against approaching illegal hawkers squatting in the passages. In January 2015, the national police cracked down on 50 shops in Montufar mall and seized products that had no legal documentation. Shopkeepers here have been taking out demonstrations against the police, condemning alleged abuse and asserting their right to work. 

"At least half a century, from 1950 onward, the streets of downtown Quito, were increasingly occupied by vendors, making it difficult for vehicles to pass and raising concerns about security. Paco Moncayo, a retired General of the Army who was elected mayor in 2000, won the trust of vendors' associations through continuous meetings and dialogues. He proposed that the vendors move into malls and construction was started immediately. In 2003, a number of malls were ready and around May that year, vendors started to move in," says Gonzalo Ortiz Crespo, academic and former member of the city council of Quito. 

Before moving into the Montufar mall, some of the vendors sold stolen items in the alleys of La Marin. "These sellers were allowed to enter the mall only after they made a submission that goods with doubtful origins would not be sold. Clearly, some of these submissions have proved to be false," says Crespo. "Around 2006, a major campaign was started and advertisements were placed, calling out to people to not buy stolen goods because they were feeding a vicious circle, but to no avail," he adds. 

The recovery of illegal mobile phones is most frequent in Quito. These are either found stacked inside repair workshops or with vendors that offer merchandise at very low prices. The most common handsets seized are Nokia, LG and Samsung, their cost fluctuating between USD 80 and 900. 

Ecuador's population, until last year, was 15.90 million and its GDP was USD 100.5 billion, according to World Bank data. Despite a decline in recent years, poverty rates remain high. "The solution is not simple. An intervention, like closing the markets and re-purposing them for residential quarters or parking lots, will only take illegal businesses to other parts of the city. We need effective education for the population, especially migrants from poorer provinces in the Central Highlands, some of whom are driven to this type of illegal commerce as they do not find any other way of making a living," says Crespo. 

This article was supported by the International Reporting Project.