Where are those street vendors when you want to arrest them?

A.M. Costa Rica/Andrew Rulseh Kasper A municipal policeman and a Fuerza Pública officer were among those seeking illegal vendors.

Wednesday marked the first coordinated effort by the Fuerza Pública and the San José Policía Municipal to rid downtown public spaces of unlicensed vendors. But when patrols and canine units took to the streets in the morning, officers reported that the vendors were nowhere to be found.

“When we arrived they weren’t there,” said Subdirector Pablo Bertozzi of the Fuerza Pública. He said that police made no arrests as a result of the operation despite the elevated presence.

Fuerza Pública reported it participated in the operation in compliance with the recent Sala IV constitutional court order that said streets should be cleared of the illegal sellers for public safety reasons and to help people with disabilities better navigate downtown.

Prior to Wednesday, the municipal police have undertaken operations of their own to combat the street vendors. But usually they only scare them off and, at most, confiscate their merchandise as punishment. Most street vendors have elaborate look-out systems in place where one warns the others when a municipal officer is spotted wearing their neon-green augmented uniforms. This cat-and-mouse game has been going on for years.

So when the Fuerza Pública, the Ministerio de Salud, the Policía de Control Fiscal, the Policía Profesional de Migración and the Patronato Nacional de la Infancia joined the effort Wednesday along with the municipal police, the vendors probably decided it was better to stay home.

As a consequence the downtown and the central pedestrian mall fell eerily quiet.

Women did not scream “bufandas, bufandas, bufandas” to sell scarves, and no men blew bubbles into the passersby or threw little grey firecrackers that go pop as they hit the pavement in an attempt to entice customers. Going also was much easier without horizontal DVD arrangements blocking crowds of rush hour pedestrians.

At peak time after work only one vendor was spotted on Avenida Central, clandestinely selling chips from a black duffle bag. The only ones left making commerce downtown were lottery vendors, sanctioned by the government and beggars. Outside of the central area it was business as usual for street vendors.

Meanwhile integrated police patrols, one municipal officer and another from the Fuerza Pública, walked through the downtown.

Rafael Arias, an adviser to the mayor’s office in San José, said that it is of utmost importance for the health of the city that the pandemic of street vendors be brought under control. He said 3,300 unlicensed vendors have been documented to be working in the city. According to municipal calculations, about half of the vendors are foreigners and, of those foreigners, about 15 percent have an illegal immigration status.

Many of the products on sale are suspects. The CDs almost certainly are counterfeit, and the source of other products are uncertain. The vendors collect no sales tax.

Underage children are also known to work illegally as vendors. For this, the Patronato Nacional de la Infancia, the child welfare agency, was involved in the sweep.

Arias characterized the vendors as often linked with drugs or crime and usually controlled by mafia-style bands that exploit the economic situation of the vendors. He said some are affiliated with stores to help them to push more products to a wider audience.

He said Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela have similar problems with illegal vendors.

Fuerza Pública officials, although they participated in the coordinated effort, have said it is primarily the city’s problem and will only be helping out as needed. Arias said any enforcement solution may be difficult because it deals with such a large quantity of people. He characterized the primary problem with the street vendors as only a failure to formalize the economic activity. He said the city is in charge of issuing such permissions to sell in public streets in San José.

A small group of vendors staged a peaceful protest last week against being shut down. There have been more violent confrontations in the past when municipal police tried to enforce the law.

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