MANAGUA – A billowing pillar of grey smoke could be seen twirling into the night sky several blocks from her cosmetic shop, but Olga Inarte didn’t sweat it. In the bustling Oriental Market, which sprawls out across downtown Managua, fires break out all the time, she says.
“It looked pretty far away,” she remembers of the night of the fire. Unfortunately for her, and many others, it wasn’t.
The next morning, her store was in ashes as were some $100,000 in assets and lost profits. A month after the devastating July 31 fire, Inarte still visits the charred remains of her shop along with hundreds of other bereaved vendors to gather the charred remains to sell as scrap metal as the rebuilding slowly beings.
“There’s no insurance here,” she says stoically. “We’re going to rebuild and see what we can do.”
The only market to survive Managua’s 1972 earthquake, Mercado Oriental is known by those who have forged its labyrinthine depths as a bustling maze of trade – legal and otherwise. From piñatas to contraband to illegal abortions, the variety offered at Central America’s largest market is the stuff of tall tales. It’s a haven for commerce as well as thievery, and if you can’t find it in the Oriental, you probably won’t find it in Nicaragua, they say.
“You can get anything from a nail to an airplane,” says taxi driver Paul Perez, who insists that a keen shopper could find enough spare airplane parts leftover from the 1980s Contra war to assemble a plane, or even a helicopter.
Miraculously, the fire that blazed uncontrollably for 14 hours and across four city blocks took no lives, but it did claim an estimated 1,300 shops in the heart of Managua’s commercial hub.
Reportedly caused by a short-circuit from an illegal electric connection, it didn’t take long for the fire to spread through the market, which President Daniel Ortega called a “web” of electric wires. Firefighters struggled to contain the blaze on foot since much of the market is inaccessible by vehicle. Only two of 60 fire hydrants worked, forcing firefighters to ship in water from half a kilometer away.
Order From Chaos
In rebuilding the market, the municipal government is trying to establish some semblance of order from what has long been a chaotic and unregulated den of commerce. But the task has not been easy.
To make the heart of the sprawling market more accessible, Managua Mayor Dionisio “Nicho” Marenco has the municipality studying the possibility of opening up the jam-packed market with a new beltway road that would allow for emergency vehicles to access the market around a perimeter.
“The idea is to reopen access roads to the market so they’re available when other catastrophes happen,” Managua Vice Mayor Neri Orochena told The Nica Times.
Orochena said the lack of vehicular access to the fire was the “fundamental problem” in fighting it.
But the project faces obstacles. For one, the city public-works projects in general are on a sort of standby as upcoming November municipal elections could bring a changing of the guard.
Secondly, the central government has shown no interest in supporting the budget-strapped Managua municipality’s reconstruction efforts – Ortega has chided Marenco’s road proposal, and even vendors say they don’t want the road to be built where their shops are.
Instead, first lady Rosario Murillo has announced a $3.5 million plan to finance 700 merchants who were affected by the fire with $5,000 in loans to help get them back on their feet. The program, called “In the name of God,” offers three-year loans with six-month grace periods and minimum interest rates of 3 percent.
“Beloved merchants, here the only guarantee is your work ethic,” Murillo told vendors at a meeting in Sandinista headquarters Aug. 14.
Vice Mayor Orochena says the municipality hopes to offer shop owners tax breaks or stipends and is also looking to coordinate solutions with Unión Fenosa, which has said it is “impossible” to distribute electricity in the Oriental in a secure fashion. Fenosa has demanded that Oriental merchants pay their debts with the company and stop connecting to the grid illegally.
Nicaragua’s Sewage and Water Institute (ENACAL) President Ruth Selma called for a crackdown on fire hydrant looters after only two of 60 hydrants were found in working order for firefighters.
“Looters make a joke of our public infrastructure while they get rich. They’ve sacked more than a thousand fire hydrants,” Selma says. “Replacing one hydrant costs $2,000, but the day we replace it, they strip it of all its copper.”
At the entrance of the market on a recent afternoon, ash-caked children and women carried burnt pieces of metal out on their heads. In the heart of the fire-scorched market, teenagers went at the seared iron frame of an old roof with a sledge hammer.
Kids in sandals with soot up to their knees made their way through piles of burnt cell phones and scattered broken glass, trying to find salvageable material that could be resold.
As soon as the fire was contained, chaterreros – or scrap-metal scavengers – inundated the market, taking anything and everything that was left. Looting was widespread.
Weeks later, the ransacking continued.
Devastated shop owners like Jamie Molina have become full-time watchdogs of the rubble in which their shops were left, waiting for buyers to purchase their cable and scorched roofing before someone else gets to it.
With the price of scrap metal way down due to a sudden flood of supply from the burnt marketplace, shop owners find themselves selling what’s left of their livelihood for a few pesos.
“They’re paying one peso for a pound of iron. It used to be three pesos,” Molina says.