The Immortal Bazaar

The eternal marketplace, Argentina’s La Salada grows and multiplies its thousands of stalls, emerging from the industrial warehouses that housed its beginnings, crawling along the polluted banks of the Riachuelo river and the surrounding streets, meter by meter, bringing with it cheap counterfeit clothing and violent struggles for control of tiny territories until, every few years, the forces of order arrive to smash and destroy and beat back this unstoppable force, for a little while at least. From Anfibia, a profile of the largest textile hub in the western hemisphere:

Once again bulldozers have demolished part of La Salada. On the news they’re saying they have hauled away twenty truckloads of twisted metal: the skeletons of anywhere between 2,000 and 8,000 vendor stands. Hard facts about the market are that difficult to pin down, and about as reliable as the clothing that is sold in the market’s corridors.

Each time something happens there, several scenes repeat themselves: The media goes on about sales of illegal goods, the chambers of commerce celebrate, the television repeats the same file footage, and the owners of the market — all of them seem to have political ambitions — talk to any news outlet they can.

With the news the demand for opinions grows. Some call Nacho Giron, author of a book about La Salada, and others call me, because I wrote a book called “Sangre Salada” [“Salty Blood”]. Yes, two books have indeed been written about the marketplace. There have also been a documentary film, a fictional movie and a number of doctoral theses. Besides clothing and violence, La Salada seems to churn out a good bit of cultural production.

To understand what is going on, I think, it is necessary to go back in time. This is not the first time these streets have looked like scorched earth. Before it was the largest textile hub on the continent, this corner of the outskirts of Buenos Aires already looked like a post nuclear landscape.

The story starts 25 years ago. Imagine the scene. Where once there had been saltwater pools that helped workers and their families survive the heat of summer, warehouses have arisen, and now stand empty. The neighborhood’s aesthetic is that of a squatter architecture that endured the test of time, intermixed with the destitution of rural poverty. The streets are mud and rock. The environment is dominated by the Riachuelo River and its smells: 12 feet of rotten mud covered by a trickle of water that stinks like sewage.

A group of Bolivian immigrants arrives there in 1991. They are led by a former police officer from that Andean nation: Gonzalo Rojas Paz. He is looking for a place where his people can freely buy and sell contraband arriving from the north. He rents one of the warehouses and there, around the empty swimming pool, the Bolivians gather to eat pork ribs and drink beer. What is about to be born is La Salada, the largest textile market in the country.

At first no one pays attention. Later, the buzz arises: They sell cheap jeans there, chocolates, razors. If you are buying, go to the Bolivians, the area residents say. And more vendors arrive: Bolivian seamstresses who have fled the Korean-run workshops that make clothes for big name brands, and after them Korean merchants who previously sold their wares in the Eleven [Buenos Aires commercial neighborhood], and small-time smugglers selling trinkets made in China.

Rojas Paz, the visionary former police officer, understands the business: He buys one of the warehouses and then divides it into thousands of stalls. He needs an Argentine partner to do the paperwork, or at least that is what they lead him to believe. His partner will be Quique Antequera, a street vendor who imports Polo shirts from Paraguay. Remember that name: It will be key for what happens later.

At the beginning of the 90s, the other big player in the market is still a nobody. He sits on a curb offering up the shoes he makes with his own hands. He is chubby, born and raised in [the nearby town of]Ingeniero Budge, orphaned by his mother when he was six years old. He lives next to the pools and watches the growth of the market from up close. He is quick-tempered and oddly cunning. He tries to sell at the market, but he ends up getting in fights with the Bolivians and he figures something out. There is an opportunity. His name is Jorge Castillo and when he starts to set up a market in the warehouse next door, he does not know he is about rise up as the lord of an empire.

The one who is not so lucky is the former Bolivian police officer. La Salada is on its way to turning into a monster market, and now the government dives into it like a parasite to suck out all its blood. The government only shows itself in the form of police officers here to collect bribes. When the Bolivian decides to build 1,000 new stands, the neighborhood police chief asks for a bribe of one million dollars. The Bolivian says no, the police chief is crazy: A few months later the Bolivian is dead, hanged in prison.

This relationship with the local police — pay bribes to be able to work in exchange for not coming to a bad end — becomes the norm. The police come by to collect with their little notebooks in hand and they sometimes even farm out the bribe collection to a third party. The bribes exist like a tax.

While representatives of the law sweep through the market in this predatory way, La Salada constructs its own parallel legal system. Quique Antequera — the shirt vendor — and Jorge Castillo — the shoemaker from across the street — are in charge. They take care of security, parking, market hours and, above all, the rental of the stands.

That is the big business at the market: real estate. The big money is not in making imitation clothing, in selling imported socks or robbing those who go there to shop. The fights, the gunshots, the dead — there were four in November — those are because of turf disputes.

The most violent and least regulated part is out on the streets, along the banks of the Riachuelo River. The three markets that operate in the warehouses — Urkupina, Punta Mogote and Ocean — are organized and have more or less defined owners, but on the banks of the river every centimeter must be protected by force. If one has a way to defend it, there he can take over, say, a space for a hundred stands. Each stand, according to the season, can be rented for 500 pesos [$55] a day, paid twice a week. Do the math.

At some point, the riverfront turns into the largest part of the market. No one knows where it starts and where it ends. On days the market is open, buses change their route. Every once in a while there is a fight for ground. Sometimes they end up throwing rocks or sometimes negotiating. Other times they shoot.

The government tries to establish limits. A judicial order says the road that runs next to the Riachuelo River must be cleared and asphalted. It is part of the plan to clean up the river. There have been almost two years of negotiations. Cooperatives are formed for the least protected workers. Nearly 1,500 stands are relocated. In January 2012, the bulldozers arrive for the first time. It seems like a miracle, but the street is clear and the asphalting progresses.

La Salada vendors. Photo Sub Coop

La Salada vendors. Photo Sub Coop

This week’s bulldozing was a result of that situation. While one part of the market is slowly becoming regulated – [the tax collection agency]ARBA opened an office and got 3,500 vendors to sign up to pay taxes –, the riverfront began a rebirth. Like a virus, the stands spread along the sidewalks and streets. How are these new spaces of power divided up? From the end of the year up until now, there were at least four gunfights, each with a fatality. In the last one, the victim ended up dead with bullet in his head, covered with a blanket while around him people bought and sold as usual. Not even the .45 he carried in his waistband or the bullet-proof vest he wore did him any good.

The bulldozers that appeared on television screens this week came back to try to stop all that. It was a judicial order. Residents from the neighborhood had made the complaint: There was talk of intimidation, of having public space usurped, of violence. The operation was carried out one day when the market was closed and consisted of removing everything that was in the street, literally: The bulldozers leveled the stands, later they compacted them and then took them away on trailers.

The first to celebrate the intervention were the people from CAME, the Argentine Small Business Confederation. They said it was the first step in “eradicating this scourge” and that interventions like this one should be repeated “in every corner of the country”.
The truth, though, is that CAME was exaggerating: The eviction was not to eradicate the market, but to impose a boundary to growth on the out-of-control fringe.

And besides, La Salada is never going to disappear.

Because if the big business at the market is real estate, its life source is something much deeper and more complex. On one side are the thousands of shopkeepers who produce — not uncommonly with slave labor — low-priced imitation clothing. They have learned in the Argentine and Korean sewing rooms, stitching for the big brands, and they have copied that business model, making it profitable. This model multiplied by the thousands: do piecework in small workshops, skip the middleman, have a small profit margin and earn money by selling in large quantities.

On the other side, thousands of people are looking to dress themselves in the cheapest way possible without entirely giving up hope of wearing brand-name clothing. They go to La Salada not just because [businesses]do not pay taxes there. Nor do the clothing makers pay for advertising, trademarks, or the rent and bills of a shopping mall. To understand more, read the book by economists Diego Coatz and Mariano Kestelboim, or look for the summary that Alfredo Zaiat did for Pagina/12. It is called “The Formation of the Price of Clothing”. They say that the price of clothing on the official market breaks down like this: 34 percent for the industrial process, 40 for commercial and financial costs and 26 percent for taxes. The cost of actually making the clothes, say the economists, represents only 15 percent of the price.

And so every week, the market welcomes hundreds of buses and vans from all over the country, buses full of businesspeople looking to dodge those costs and find merchandise to stock their shelves. Some say there are 500 buses a day — others say 100 — but it might be a lot more. Or less: You never know. There are thousands of buyers and sellers who arrive in this nocturnal city and open their doors to welcome them. It is a brutal city, with its own laws, full of chaotic, unorganized progress. But it also full of life.

The whole country’s window displays are full of La Salada.

Sebastian Hacher Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard