The sheets spread out on the promenade from which tourists are invited to buy goods with fake designer labels, have become part of the scenery on the Costa del Sol. Scarce police resources, the complicit custom from passers-by and the lack of consensus over how to deal with the problem has turned illegal street vending into a chronic offence on the coast. The displays of bags, shirts and trainers make some stretches of promenade in Puerto Banús, La Carihuela or Benalmádena almost impassable in the summer when the population can triple in these tourist resorts with services designed for their census of around 75,000 people.
The concentration of the hawkers in one particular area complicates the work of the local police. Officers who normally patrol in pairs have little room to manoeuvre when as many as ten vendors group together. The situation has forced councils in towns such as Marbella and Benalmádena to reinforce their patrols aimed at controlling illegal selling. The predominant feeling among the Costa's local police officers is, however, impotence. Their work multiplies in the summer, when paradoxically there are fewer officers on duty due to holidays. Add to this the frustration as the hawkers tend to abandon the area minutes before they arrive thanks to informants who take a share of the profits.
The problem wouldn't be there, of course, if there wasn't a demand for the goods from the general public. Police officers have told this newspaper that they are often rebuked by both locals and tourists when they confiscate the fake goods on sale. While their activity might seem harmless, it constitutes unfair competition for traders who pay their taxes, it swells the "black" economy and generates million-euro losses for firms that manufacturer and sell bags, sunglasses, watches or clothing. The European Observatory on Infringements of Intellectual Property Rights has pointed out that some sectors lose up to 17 per cent of jobs due to the illegal vendors.
Trade in fake goods, in the words of Pablo López, accounts director at intellectual property specialists Clarke, Modet & Co, uses a structure similar to that of drug or arms traffickers. An internal report within the Benalmádena Local Police force reveals the organisation of this illegal industry, on occasions controlled by ringleaders who don't sell items themselves but exploit dozens of migrants. The police have identified at least seven of these "bosses". Two of them drive Mercedes. In his report the Local Police chief points out that it is "a priority to avoid forceful arrests or actions that can scare people away", as well as any other "disproportionate action that could lead to reproach from passers-by" and put citizen safety at risk.
Back in March local business owners called a meeting to tackle the problem in Torremolinos and Benalmádena, which was attended by both mayors and representatives of the Local and National Police forces.
"It was useless because they never put into action any of the measures we called for," said the president of the Benalmádena Traders Association ACEB, Rosa María González, who says she is "indignant" at the impunity with which illegal trading grows every year on the Costa del Sol.
"This summer I've received more than 500 photographs of these hawkers taken by local traders, because a lot of them are sick of them standing right in front of their shops. How can we allow someone to come along and lay down a sheet full of fake versions of the same goods sold in the shop right behind him, when the shopkeeper is paying 4,000 or 5,000 euros just in rent, as is the case in Puerto Marina?" she added.
Some of the alternatives suggested by business owners and councils involve registering the vendors in cooperatives where their commercial activity is regulated, or moving them to markets. So far however, these options have been frustrated by the fact that many of the hawkers have no legal documents and others refuse to stop selling fakes, their main source of income.
Through the Local Police, local councils seize thousands of items every summer, a figure that contrasts with the few arrests. The vendors tend to run when they realise there are police around and leave their goods behind - or bury them in the sand - a reaction that prevents the officers from associating the individuals with the goods and from issuing fines for illegal trading.
Internally, officers from several Police forces on the Costa del Sol have called for reinforcements in the form of substitutions, the employment of municipal informants, the setting up of an immediate action unit and paid overtime. They also agree that the problem should be tackled from a global perspective given the increase in violent reactions among the vendors: "It's not just something that concerns the Local Police," they say.
Recently in Marbella a group of illegal street vendors turned on police who had confiscated the fake goods that they were trying to sell on Rodeíto beach. The three officers were outnumbered and a large part of the contraband was snatched back.
Behind the illegal hawkers are several mafia-style organisations that supply the goods, the majority of them fakes, stored on industrial estates. The mafias force the migrants to endless working days, exposed to arrest at any moment.
Tired of this situation, several vendors in Benalmádena have been trying for at least a year to create their own brand, following the example of Barcelona, where the hawkers sell trainers, T-shirts and other articles under the brand Top Manta, the name given in Spanish to the sale of goods on sheets or blankets (mantas). The idea has not caught on yet on the Costa del Sol.
"There are a lot of us who want to change this way of life. We would prefer to be in a street market, but some of us don't have papers," said one Senegalese vendor who works in the province of Malaga. His story is another piece in the complex puzzle which combines business losses, police frustration, personal dramas and exploitation of workers.