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Taxi robberies plague Mexico City


December 19, 1997
Web posted at: 9:06 p.m. EST (0206 GMT)

From Correspondent Harris Whitbeck

MEXICO CITY (CNN) -- Polanco, one of Mexico City's prettiest neighborhoods, filled with parks and open-air cafes, has become the area of choice for many business people, both international and domestic.

But the district has seen an increase of another sort: robberies where the thieves prey on people who use taxis.

Often it appears the driver may be an accomplice.

An official explained it this way: A taxi driver will pick up a fare and then either pretend the taxi has broken down, or perhaps just stop the car in an isolated area. The driver's cohorts then rush into the cab and rob the passenger.

"It's the only city I know of where taking a taxicab is perhaps more dangerous than taking a bus," says Don Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.

Just last week, an American businessman was shot and killed in a cab he hailed in front of his office building. The number of taxi holdups has increased by about 10 percent in the last year. Last month, an average of one every day was reported.

The U.S. embassy has now warned U.S. visitors against flagging down a taxi on the street, and recommended only calling for cabs from known companies.

"There are perhaps 85,000 legal taxicabs in Mexico City," Hamilton said. "If 1 percent of them are operated by thieves, that's a significant number to deal with."

Despite recent efforts to increase the police presence on city streets, authorities admit that the real solution is, as of yet, unreachable. Until laws are changed to allow for tougher sentences, officials say few criminals will be put behind bars.

Taxis -- ubiquitous green or yellow Volkswagen Beetles -- are essential for many people getting around overcrowded Mexico City. They dart in and out of traffic with great ease, all for a good price; rare is the taxi ride that costs more than $5.

But virtually every visitor who lingers in this sprawling, polluted metropolis of 18 million people knows someone who has been held up at gunpoint in a taxi.

Taxi drivers are quick to point out that they are, by and large, an honest and hard-working lot in a dangerous profession, themselves often the victims of assaults.

Victor Manuel Estrada, who has driven a taxi in Mexico City for 12 years, said he works 14 hours a day to earn about $20 and that he was robbed and beaten three months ago.

"The great majority of the assaults on American tourists are committed by someone who has robbed a taxi driver," Estrada said. "They take our cars and rob other people. They're not taxi drivers, they're thugs."

The attorney general's office here has set up two offices to help visitors who are victimized. But the city's security forces are in disarray.

A new chief of police has yet to be named. The last chief was found to have an extensive criminal record.


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