Guadalajara, Mexico - Leonardo has been working on the scorched streets of Guadalajara, Mexico's second biggest city, for eight years. To some, he is a criminal who extorts honest citizens and claims ownership of public spaces. To others, he is a useful handyman whom they trust with their car keys each morning.

Having failed to find a formal job to support his wife and four children, 42-year-old Leonardo is one of the 57 percent of workers who labour in Mexico's informal economy, according to a 2015 study (PDF) by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Like all informal parking attendants, known here as 'franeleros' or 'viene-vienes', Leonardo has his own designated patch, where he helps locals to park and then keeps watch over their cars. Those who have been working the longest claim the right to the city's busiest blocks, he explained.

"On a good day, I can make up to 600 pesos (about $35) but another day I might only make 50 pesos ($3)," Leonardo told Al Jazeera.

Easily recognised by their baseball caps, baggy T-shirts and jeans, and the washcloths slung over their shoulders or hanging from their back pockets, franeleros typically charge 20 to 40 pesos ($1 to $2) to watch over people's cars in a city where robberies are all too common.

However, many locals view franeleros as an annoyance and fear they will purposely damage their vehicles if they refuse to pay up.

"I can't speak for others but I've never damaged a car in my life," Leonardo said, pulling a handful of car keys out of his pocket. "That's why my clients trust me with their keys and let me move their cars when necessary."

Locals denounce extortion

That level of trust does not exist in every neighbourhood. A 2014 survey (PDF) by local civic association Jalisco Como Vamos found that 66 percent of Guadalajara residents distrust those they meet on the streets. The public perception of franeleros is exemplified by a Facebook group denouncing their presence in Guadalajara and an online petition calling for local authorities to banish them.

"They're very insistent, and if you don't pay them you run the risk that they'll scratch your car or smash your windows and steal your stereo," said Igor Oleynick, who launched the petition last year.

"They're not really watching your car. On the contrary, they charge you for not damaging your car. It's extortion," he said. "They're privatising public spaces. We pay taxes so why should we have to pay someone to park on public streets?"

Oleynick's comments are echoed by the petition's 200 signatories, including Carlos Arellano, who complained that franeleros smashed his windscreen and scratched his car after he refused to pay the entire 70 pesos ($4) they demanded up front.

Another signatory, Arnau Muria, alleged that the franeleros work for organised crime gangs and serve as "the eyes and ears of narcos, kidnappers and worse".

A franelero can make up to 600 pesos (about $35) on a good day, but on another he might make only 50 pesos ($3) [Duncan Tucker/Al Jazeera] 

Fighting stigmatisation

Otilia Arellano, who runs Amigos Trabajando en los Cruceros, an NGO working to end child labour in Guadalajara, told Al Jazeera that many youths who work on the streets end up as franeleros. They are often stigmatised and their numbers have risen in recent years amid rising poverty in Mexico, she added.

"For the most part society views them as criminals or garbage,Arellano said. "They don't choose to live like this. Most take whatever work they can get because they live in poverty."

Arellano believes the solution is to educate franeleros and regulate their work: "Many of these people don't realise that the way they're working is wrong. We need to teach them. The rest of society might understand these things but many people who work on the streets can't even read or write."

Although often accused of low-level extortion, many franeleros say they themselves have been victimised by the police.

Rafael, who leads an informal union of those who work near Lopez Cotilla, a leafy avenue lined with popular restaurants, told Al Jazeera that local police officers used to demand weekly bribes of 50 pesos ($3) from every franelero in the area. Then they started charging 50 pesos a day and imprisoning those who couldn't pay.

With the help of friendly business owners and a local university, Rafael lodged a complaint with the state human rights commission last September. It had the desired effect and Rafael said the police have not demanded bribes since Guadalajara's new municipal government took office in October.

A moustachioed, tattooed 43-year-old, Rafael has worked as a franelero for two decades because he has only a primary-level education and could not find work elsewhere. His next goal is to formalise their profession.

"If they were to regulate us we'd be happy to pay taxes in order to get benefits and social security," he said.

As for the allegations of wrongdoing, Rafael explained: "We don't block off parts of the street for the use of our clients but some others do. That's wrong. The streets are for everyone. All we do is keep an eye on people's cars and offer to wash them."

He added: "It would be really stupid to damage someone's car because they'd call the police and we'd get in trouble. If someone doesn't want to pay us that's fine because the next person will."

The privatisation debate

Many critics accuse franeleros of privatising public streets, yet Francisco Reynoso, a Mexican academic who specialises in urban studies, believes that parking meters run by private businesses represent a more serious form of privatisation.

Most franeleros use their modest income to support their families, he told Al Jazeera, whereas a large portion of the revenue drawn from parking meters is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy business owners.

Mario Silva, Guadalajara's director of transport, told Al Jazeera that the city is home to 4,808 parking meters, many of which account for two spaces each. These are run by Metro Meters, a private enterprise that splits all revenue 50/50 with the local government.

Silva insisted this does not amount to privatisation because the government still determines the price of using the meters. The city also benefits from reduced congestion as the meters discourage use of cars, he added.

Guadalajara's municipal government is now considering what to do about the franeleros, who are mostly tolerated at present. Those who use buckets, bricks or rocks to cordon off parts of public streets and charge people to park there can be moved on, fined or even arrested for committing misdemeanours, Silva said, along with those who consume or sell drugs in the street.

Yet he acknowledged that not all franeleros represent a problem and affirmed that government officials will meet with local residents in the coming weeks to discuss how to "restore order" while allowing them to "work in a dignified manner".

In the meantime, having developed close ties with their communities, franeleros such as Leonard will continue to take pride in their work, which extends to doing whatever odd jobs his clients require.

"I wash, park and fix cars, I do plumbing, construction, electrical work, carpentry, gardening, I paint cars and houses," Leonard said. "A lot of people see it as a demeaning job but it's not, it's honourable work."

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker

Source: Al Jazeera