Uneasy Riders Crave Safer Streets

'Road warrior' takes on new meaning for cabbies, clients.

In this city of rising crime, it's been a year of living dangerously - symbolized for many by a Volkswagen Beetle taxi. Yet even though headlines scream that 20 people a day are being robbed in cabs, I have places to go. So like hundreds of thousands of others, and despite a specific warning from my embassy, I extend my taxi-hailing arm.

When the familiar lime-green Bug pulls to the curb, I climb in while taking a series of, by now, rote precautionary measures: Size up the driver, check for an official ID, make sure the photo matches the cabbie, and lock the passenger-side door to prevent the bad guys from jumping in and turning my ride into a robbery.

I notice that the driver has his seat belt pulled across his chest, but it is not buckled. I assume he's simply flouting the recent seat-belt law. But when I ask, I get a different story.

Actually I first get the distinct impression the driver is sizing me up. (I suppose I could look dubious: shaved head, goatee, wire-rimmed dark glasses. I was told by a Mexican friend that I'm sporting the Bruce Willis look.) "It's to discourage an assault," the driver says. "What they do is pull the strap tight across your neck and choke you, telling you to hand over the money, sometimes with a gun in the other hand for good measure."

"Has this already happened to you?" I ask. He sighs, "Yes."

Tales are commonplace among Chilangos - Mexico City residents - of taxi clients forced at gunpoint to take a ride to the local ATM. A journalist I know was forced to withdraw money, then taken to watch a soccer match on TV at one of the robbers' homes while the gang waited for midnight - at which hour the ATM allowed a new day's maximum to be withdrawn.

In March, a newspaper survey revealed that almost half of those polled were no longer taking cabs.

But we know less about the dangers faced by the taxistas driving those 90,000 taxis. Recently the union took a first step to combat their poor image. They spoke out against the daily threats they face to provide an invaluable service. And they proposed a "Taxi Amigo" program, where participating taxistas would greet riders with a reassuring smile and their permit. Members' cars would display a happy-taxi decal. Another group suggests the union return to the practice of refusing to grant licenses to those with criminal backgrounds.

According to the union, taxistas face an average of 2,000 assaults every day. In some cases, their vehicles are stolen by "pirates" who drive them as a "Trojan horse" from which to rob unsuspecting clients. More than 4,000 taxis have been stolen over the past two years, the union says. One hundred taxi drivers have been killed.

Adding insult to injury, taxistas say, is the treatment they face from police. Police usually demand a sizable mordida, bribe, to follow through with an investigation. Otherwise, the case is dropped. "That's because a lot of the thieves are in with the police, or are police officers themselves," my driver says.

Mayor Cuauhtmoc Crdenas's office claims crime levels are beginning to fall. But Mr. Crdenas is not letting up on the issue. He recently returned from New York, where he studied that city's dramatic crime drop. He knows his reputation - and his presidential aspirations - hinge on turning around a problem that took root in the economic downturn of 1994-95 and the rise of drug-related street gangs.

By now, our conversation has become comfortable. But my taxista still hasn't buckled his seat belt. When I mention this, he shrugs and says, "Well, you never know."

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