US agent's murder spotlights spate of Colombia cab crimes

The recent murder of an American government employee in Colombia has thrown the spotlight on an ominous spate of crimes in this Latin American country -- cab muggings.

James "Terry" Watson, an agent with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, was fatally stabbed in Bogota on June 21 while fighting off an apparent robbery in a taxi he caught in the capital.

Six Colombians have been charged with kidnapping and second-degree murder in US federal court.

Over the past two years, police figures show that more than 200 people have suffered a similar fate -- although, unlike Watson, most were lucky enough to survive their ordeal.

Once inside the vehicle, the victims are usually held up and even attacked with a knife or gun by the occupants -- this sometimes goes on for hours while they are robbed of their cash and bank cards.

One 45-year-old manager had the misfortune of catching such a ride as he left a shopping mall. After hopping in, the driver soon stopped to pick up an accomplice a few streets away.

"They took the cash I had on me for my vacation and forced me to give them the codes for my cards and then waited until midnight to do the rounds of ATMs," the victim told AFP.

The incident took place in the north of Bogota, a well-heeled area dotted with shops and restaurants where Watson's ill-fated trip started.

The practice is so rampant here that most people know someone who has been taken for a "millionaire's ride."

"It happened to two friends of mine from work," Luisa Leon recalled.

The 24-year-old added that her friends had hailed cabs on the street and that, in both cases, "guys got in and robbed them of all their belongings and money."

During the last six months, 35 complaints of this kind of crime have been filed with the city's police.

That's much less than the 71 submitted during the same period a year ago, but officials attribute the drop -- on paper -- to the fact that more than half of all victims don't come forward thinking perpetrators won't be caught.

Crime experts such as Ruben Dario Ramirez, director of a Bogota security research center, are not surprised by the spate of cab robberies.

With more than 50,000 taxis in operation and little oversight, evildoers get the perfect cover, he said.

"There are no strict checks of drivers," he said. "Most cab owners don't actually operate their own vehicles and delegate that task to one or two others -- or even more if drivers get sick."

According to Ramirez, taxi muggings began their rise to prominence in Bogota about a decade ago, with registered incidents peaking at 600 in 2002.

Starting in 2006, such attacks went from being considered "aggravated robberies" to "abductions aimed at extorting" victims, with penalties of up to 40 years in prison.

Hugo Ospina, a representative of the country's national taxi association, stressed that most cabbies are not criminals.

Rather, he said, offenders have found several ways to "infiltrate" the system due to lax oversight.

To stop the scourge, the group has developed a mobile app -- dubbed "guardian angel" -- aimed at making sure clients get safe rides.

Several cab companies also offer phone services allowing patrons to call a taxi instead of hailing one down on the curb.

For added security, callers get a text message with the vehicle's license details.

And to protect cab drivers, who sometimes also question the intent of their customers, clients have to indicate the phone number they used to reserve the ride.