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Mexican Smugglers Going Legit; Plan Shopping Mall

August 23, 1990

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Tepito, the infamous smugglers’ market, is suffering an identity crisis.

Mexico has thrown its doors open to imports, making Sonys and Mars Bars legal. Yesterday’s contraband is available at stores with names like Super Gringo.

What’s a smuggler to do?

Cut prices. Build a shopping center. Offer cheap parking.

″Tepitenos have always had a keen sense of timing, an eye for opportunity,″ said Miguel Galan, president of the Confederation of Tepito Merchant Associations.

In the 1970s, when Mexico was flush with oil money, Tepito became known as the place to buy contraband, known as fayuca.

Tough import restrictions meant only smugglers could supply the booming consumer demand for Japanese televisions and stereos, for shampoo and sweets made in the U.S.A.

Residents of Tepito, a scrappy inner-city slum, were glad to oblige.

It became a place where guts and a pickup could make a prince of a pauper. Tepitenos streamed back and forth across the U.S. border like ants, buying off police and customs officers.

″Fayuca flourished because it was good business for everybody: customs, the police, the Tepitenos, the consumers,″ Galan said.

Things began to change after Mexico joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, in 1986. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has further eased import restrictions since taking office in 1988.

Most of merchandise in Tepito, which specializes in electronics, now is imported legally because ″people realized it was easier to pay taxes than to make payoffs,″ Galan said in an interview.

The prospect of legitimacy has spawned ambitious visions of direct imports from Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. It evokes dreams of conventional grandeur.

Galan proudly unfurled an architect’s rendering of a five-story, 172,000- square-foot commercial center that would replace the maze of stalls, booths and shops run by thousands of people whose families have done business here for generations.

″We need 4,000 parking spaces, minimum,″ Galan said.

Is it possible that infamous Tepito, home to 14,000 merchants, could become just another shopping mall?

On the surface, the district seems to have changed little. It hums with the raffish energy that made it legend.

Housewives haggle with hustlers; carts jam the streets, laden with products as diverse as fresh donuts and eggs of endangered turtles. Pickpockets prey on the unwary in a bruising din of radios, stereos, televisions, video players and Nintendos.

Merchandise still changes hands on a cash-only, don’t-even-think-of-asking-fo r-a-receipt-or-warranty basis.

Tomorrow’s Tepito already seems to be evolving, however. Since Mexico opened its borders, small-time smugglers have been largely replaced by bulk importers, legitimate and otherwise.

″There used to be thousands of people bringing stuff across the border,″ said Alejandra Escareno, a third-generation Tepitena. ″Now there are only a handful of big guys. They bring in stuff by the trailer load, put it in their warehouses and sell it to small vendors.″

Escareno, 42, said small-timers can’t offer competitive prices, so she quit dealing in electronics when it became legal.

″How could we compete when we had 10 televisions and they had 100?″ she asked. Escareno went back to the family’s old line: used clothes, another time-honored business in Tepito.

Tepito is a scavenger on the edges of Mexican history. For decades, it was like a quirky mirror that reflected the silver lining instead of the cloud.

″There has always been a special kind of person here who could figure out how to keep ahead of the game,″ Tepito historian Alfonso Hernandez y Hernandez said in a recent interview with the newspaper La Jornada.

Its open-air markets emerged after the desperate years of the 1910-1920 Revolution. Craftsmen displaced by war settled in Tepito and survived by patching old clothes and shoes.

World War II shortages rekindled the demand for refurbished items, and then came the postwar years of growth.

As people moved into Mexico City’s new suburbs, Tepitenos snapped up their discarded possessions.

″They cast off their old things in the rush to be ‘modern’,″ Galan said, running a hand over the huge, claw-footed desk his father had found. ″Tepito became known as the place to get bargains on antiques.″

Businessmen like Galan, who quit living in Tepito after he made a fortune in pirated cassettes, sometimes are described as insensitive to its special nature.

Most Tepitenos are fiercely loyal to the neighborhood, which already was a teeming slum when Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519.

The spirit that bred its smugglers also has spawned writers, painters and poets. Some fear legitimacy may be the one thing this barrio of about 400,000 people cannot survive.

Escareno considered Galan’s vision of megashopping, parking lots and computerized marketing, and said:

″Tepito is a special place. The community is very united. But it just wouldn’t be the same.″

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