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Taxi driver in Mexico City

Robert Donnelly

Entering a Mexico City taxi means entering the special world of cabbies - a place where two traffic lanes can swiftly become three, seatbelts generally are very few and far between, and where there appears to be very, very little change for large bills. Those who have hurtled down Insurgentes Sur or zoomed around Reforma's glorietas while clutching a frayed hand strap know this world. So do those who have spied on their driver's comportment through a rearview mirror only to catch the glint of a gold-capped smile and the question:
" ¿Cuáles te gustan: las morenas o las güeras?"

Mexico City TaxiTaxis are an integral part of Mexico City life. Legions of them, mainly in the form of green and yellow Volkswagen Beetles, scurry to hustle passengers from the ruins of Teotihuacán north of the Federal District to the canals of Xochimilco to the south, traversing the city laterally from the airport's barrios to tony Polanco. At last count, the government estimated 86,000 legitimate and 26,200 rogue cabs were on the roads. Rich and poor alike take cabs, whose metered fares start at 4.80 pesos and increase in half-kilometer intervals of 0.50 pesos, much lower than taxi rates in most U.S. cities. There is no per-passenger hike, either. This observer once saw 11 people, though mainly children, emerge from a single Volkswagen Bug cab at the Barranca del Muerto metro station one Saturday morning.

Drivers can be as varied as the passengers they ferry. There are the amiable Ernies, like the one from "It's A Wonderful Life," as well as the solitary Travis Bickle types, popularized in Martin Scorsese's film, "Taxi Driver." Some are downright cranky, while others suprisingly friendly. One D.F. cabbie railed to this reporter against Americans who feel they can come to Mexico to "reconquer" the Indians. Another driver, after not being able to break a 100-peso bill on a 15-peso fare, said the ride was on the cab and no pay was necessary.

Thousands of aspirants currently are wending their way through Mexico City's byzantine bureaucracy in the hopes of winning one out of the 18,000 available cab concessions. The hours are long and monotonous: most drivers work twelve-hour days and six-day weeks. No beaded seat massager can alleviate the discomfort of being seated for so long. "You have to get out every once in a while," says Javier Encarnación López, a big man with a fu-manchu moustache whose crewcut scrapes the roof of his green Volkswagen. Legitimate drivers also fume at the city government's inability - or unwillingness, some maintain - to do anything about pirate taxis, which have diluted business and scared away assault-weary passengers. Tourist business is slack, as well, after the U.S. and Canadian embassies urged citizens not to hail street cabs.

Some are happy with the work - cabbies can routinely make between 80 to 120 pesos after daily car rental, much more than Mexico City's 35 pesos-a-day minimum wage. "I like my job because I don't have anyone ordering me around, and you can make more than working in an office or in a factory," says Lopez, who lives in the southern Coyoacán borough with his two sons, ages 20 and 19, and a 14-year-old daughter. On a good day working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. he says he can make 200 pesos; on a bad one, 130 pesos, after paying a daily 165-peso car rental fee.

For others, cab driving can be a last resort to dreams deferred. "I couldn't finish school to get my accounting degree, so I dedicated myself to this," says Juan Manuel Meneses Salazar, 48, a taxi driver for 30 years who has three children: René, 24, an actuary; Veronica, 22, studying to become an accountant; and Juan Manuel, 26, who drives a cab.

Mugged in a bug

Almost everyone who has lived in Mexico City for any length of time has been victim of, or knows someone who has suffered through a taxi robbery.

Robberies have seriously hurt business for legitimate drivers. Tourists, especially, shy away from hailing street cabs after the U.S. and Canadian embassies issued statements urging their citizens to take more secure transportation. The statements followed the highly publicized killing of U.S. real-estate executive Peter Zarate in December 1997 who died in what prosecutors maintained - but were never able to prove - was a taxi robbery. Taxi thieves shot another American, Texas Monthly contributing editor Jan Reid, in the wrist and stomach after he and friends took a cab following a boxing match in April 1998.

"Because of 'El Chucky' tourists don't take cabs," fumes Lopez. 'El Chucky' is the nickname of Alfonso González Sánchez who led a band charged with killing Zarate.

"The city has changed a lot," says Pedro Barrón Aguilar, 37, a cabby for 20 years who works for Taxi RadioMex, a radio-dispatch service. "People's negative image of the cab driver has affected us a lot - economically, too."

"Disgracefully, for all of us who are taxistas, pirate taxis have caused us very big problems," he says during a late-night tour of Roma neighborhood.

Robberies have done more than simply tarnish the reputations of legitimate cabbies. Taxi drivers routinely are robbery victims themselves. Antonio Barrera Torres, 56, has been assaulted 12 times in 27 years of ferrying passengers around one of the world's biggest cities. "Thank God they have not hurt me," he says laughing into one of three rearview mirrors that clutter his yellow Beetle's visor space. "The ratero is everywhere. You have to watch out."

Meneses says he used to drive at night but no more. "These days, even women will rob you," he says while driving on Reforma at Rio Guadalquivir near the Japanese Embassy one busy weekday morning. "An acquaintance of mine was robbed by women. They took him to Chapultepec, threw his keys to the side of the road, and another car came up and took them. But generally if you see two women standing on a corner and on another corner, two men, naturally you prefer to take the women," he says.

One small step for cabbies...

In spite of the difficulties of their work, cabbies are happy about one issue. Taxistas defeated the city government's attempt to prevent them from passing concessions and plates to their heirs.

Placido Zarco Gutiérrez, 38, says he is glad cabbies beat the government on that issue. An affable, dark-skinned man, Zarco says he will continue driving his 1991 Volkswagen Jetta cab for as long as it's worth the effort. And if his kids one day want to drive the streets as their father has, they will be able to skip the bureaucratic quagmire of concessions.

"I like dealing with people, and I like the city, despite the pollution and the problems," he says, turning left onto República de Argentina and passing Plaza Santo Domingo downtown. Cabs account for about a quarter of all D.F. air pollution.

Zarco, like every other cabbie on the streets of Mexico City, has seen and heard it all: from car accidents to crazy passengers; from scandalous cell phone conversations to heated lovers' quarrels in the backseat; from flirtatious passengers to a robber's gun in the face. Wearing oversized black plastic sunglasses and a haphazardly knotted tie, he makes a right, passing the stalls of TVs and stereos at the Tepito market. "How did they get that stuff?" the passenger asks. "Through non-orthodox commercial methods," Zarco chuckles as he collects the fare and heads down Eje 1.

Published or Updated on: June 1, 1999 by Robert Donnelly © 1999
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