BOGOTA, Colombia — It’s called “the millionaire’s ride” and that’s no exaggeration.
It works like this: With passengers in tow, unscrupulous taxi drivers suddenly stop to pick up accomplices who then force their victims, at gun or knife point, to pull out their debit and credit cards and withdraw millions of Colombian pesos from ATMs.
The practice has been going on for decades in Colombia, which has long suffered from high crime rates. But this form of express kidnapping leaped into the headlines last month when a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent died from stab wounds he received during a millionaire’s ride while apparently resisting his captors.
Besides highlighting the ongoing danger of hailing taxis on the street, the killing was a stark reminder that Colombia has a long way to go as it attempts to recover from decades of drug-related violence and a guerrilla conflict and present a more friendly face for foreign tourists.
Although overall security has improved and international visits to Colombia are increasing, President Juan Manuel Santos lamented that the killing of the DEA agent “erases in one swipe all the effort we have made.”
After watching the NBA finals at a restaurant in an upscale area of northern Bogota on June 21, Special Agent James "Terry" Watson, 43, hailed a taxi. Surveillance cameras showed that the taxi then stopped at a traffic light. Two other cabs pulled up beside Watson’s taxi and two assailants jumped aboard. Watson eventually escaped through the back door but was by then mortally wounded. He died at a nearby hospital.
Santos demanded fast police action and, with the help of surveillance cameras that recorded the crime authorities quickly rounded up seven men suspected of being part of a ring of taxi drivers specialized in robbing their clients.
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US officials said the crime was not related to the antidrug work of Watson, who was the second DEA agent in the past two years to be taken on a millionaire’s ride. (The “millionaire” part is relative. One million Colombian pesos equals about $525.)
Ironically, the quick police work in the Watson case exasperated some Bogotanos who complain that when they’ve fallen prey to similar scams nothing happens.
One recent victim is Felipe Gomez, a 28-year-old industrial designer from Bogota. After partying with friends until well after midnight, he hailed a cab only to find a man with a pistol hiding next to the driver in the co-pilot’s seat. They forced him to use his ATM card to withdraw nearly $1,000 — about three times the monthly minimum wage.
To avoid Watson’s fate, Gomez cooperated. But when his assailants finally let him go, a police patrol ignored Gomez’s pleas for help.
“If they target a DEA agent or a congressman it’s a terrible crime. But not if it happens to me,” Gomez said.
In some ways Bogota, where 70,000 taxis circulate, seems custom-made for these scams.
A traffic-clogged city of 8 million people, Bogota lacks a subway and its buses are often jammed with passengers who are easy targets for pickpockets. Calling taxi companies for a door-to-door pickup substantially reduces the risks but people in a hurry often hail cabs on the street. After-hours, taxis are the only form of public transportation available.
Rather than dedicated professionals, Bogota taxi drivers come from all walks of life and many end up behind the wheel after failing to find work elsewhere. Most cabbies rent rather than own their cars thus their names go unregistered with the Transportation Ministry — which makes it harder to track them down when they are suspected of crimes.
What’s more, criminal background checks are not required to become a cab driver. They need only possess a valid driver’s license. All this means that passengers never know whether the guy behind the wheel will resemble Hoke Colburn, the gentle chauffeur in “Driving Miss Daisy,” or the deranged, Robert De Niro character Travis Bickle.
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Express kidnappings are also common in Mexico City, Caracas and other Latin American metropolises but in Bogota, the crime nearly always takes place in taxis. Often, the perpetrators will strike just before midnight, forcing victims to max out their ATM cards for that day and the next.
“I don’t know any other place where hailing a cab on the street is so dangerous,” columnist Alvaro Rodriguez Valencia wrote in the Bogota daily El Espectador. “In Bogota, we have learned to live with things that other societies would find unacceptable.”
Bogota cab drivers claim that a few bad apples are ruining their reputation and point out that they too face considerable risks. Dario Rodriguez, whose been driving a cab for 23 years, recalled how two men forced him out of his taxi then fired a gun at him as they drove off with his vehicle.
“There is danger for both sides — the passenger and the driver,” Rodriguez said.
Colombia’s national security adviser, Francisco Lloreda, said the government is looking at a number of measures to improve security for passengers, including setting up taxi stands where all cabbies are registered as well as improved smartphone apps to allow passengers who call taxi companies for a pickup to verify that their driver is legitimate.
Lloreda also claimed that police are getting a lot better at apprehending the perpetrators.
“There are a lot of millionaire’s rides that the police manage to prevent,” Lloreda told the Bogota daily El Tiempo.
But Gomez, the industrial designer, said that on weekend nights when the crime frequently occurs police are often more focused on catching drunk drivers than scrutinizing cabbies.
“Now I’m afraid to take a taxi on the street,” Gomez said.