Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
It hasn’t been very productive. I celebrated my 24th birthday last night and woke up late. To be successful in this business, I need to arrive at my first supermarket by 6 a.m. and reach at least three to four stores a day.
I got my start as a bachaquero — someone who resells scarce, price-controlled items at a profit — in February 2014 when the [anti-government] protests broke out. At the time I was packing bags in a supermarket, but every day we had to close early for security. After work I’d buy a few cases of water and sell them to the protesters at three times the price. It wasn’t easy; there was so much tear gas I had to put toothpaste or vinegar around my eyes for protection.
When the food shortages started a few months later, my contacts from the protests began calling me for more goods. As a supermarket employee I had easy access, and they were willing to pay whatever was necessary. I’d deliver the products to their homes and charge, at that time, six times the price.
Eventually, our supermarket received less and less deliveries, and I quit to work in a carpentry business. But every Tuesday — the day people with an identification number that ends in 3 are allowed to access subsidized goods — and Saturday, I dedicate to being a bachaquero.
On those mornings I begin my day by calling a number of stock boys I know who tip me off when something good arrives. Depending on what’s available, lines can stretch from one to four hours. Often a security guard will hand out numbers to keep order, but when products such as milk, coffee, diapers, chicken or meat are being sold, people push and cut, and fights break out.
When those items arrive, I’ll also do what’s necessary to get my hands on them — I once went seven months without seeing milk, and I haven’t seen chicken since November. But in order to get goods when it’s not my day, I need to pay the cashier a lot of money to enter a false identification number into the system. There’s a finger scanner as well, but it’s pointless. It’s the number that counts.
Although I see this as a normal job, it’s illegal, so I need to be careful; I take only clients who have been recommended through friends. Most of them are wealthy older people who work and don’t have time to wait in line. The goods are like a drug for them; they’ll pay anything. I can charge 10 to 30 times the price sometimes. Even if they have it, they want more, because they don’t know the moment it will stop.
My clients choose me because I have fair prices and I’m reliable. Many even try to befriend me; they invite me to their homes to eat, so that I’ll be more willing to help them during a crisis. I’m happy to help them, but I feel bad about being involved in this work. I’d much rather see my country developing. My brother, sister and friends are also forced to do this in their spare time. Sometimes we all go together.
Ideally, I’d like to study to be a dental technician. But at the moment, even people with good educations work as bachaqueros because it’s good money and it’s easy. Right now it’s not the government that runs the economy in our country — it’s the bachaqueros.
This story has been corrected to note that people with an identification number that ends in 3, instead of 6, are allowed to access subsidized goods.