Uber Drivers Threatened in Bogota as Colombia Taxi War Heats Up

Catherine Cadena, a Colombian driver who uses Uber Technologies Inc.’s car-booking phone application, was returning from Bogota’s Estereo Picnic music festival with two passengers last week when she drove into an ambush. Three taxis blocked her way, and the drivers got out, shouting “Death to Uber” and brandishing what appeared to be weapons.

“They got out with something in their hands, I couldn’t distinguish exactly what,” Cadena said in a phone interview. “My passengers, a couple, were terrified, and were shouting and screaming.”

As Cadena tried to reverse, three more taxis approached from behind to block her in. She escaped by mounting the sidewalk, sustaining about $600 of damage to the shock absorbers and molding of her Renault Duster, she said.

San Francisco-based Uber has clashed with established taxi groups in several other cities where it operates, including London, Berlin and Mexico City. Those clashes have turned violent in Bogota, where the $40 billion company swiftly gained clients after starting operations in 2013 because its cars are seen as safe in the crime-ridden capital. The transport regulator says that only registered taxis are allowed to pick up members of the public, and has ordered city authorities to “immobilize” cars using Uber.

Hugo Ospina, President of Colombia’s Association of Taxi Drivers and Owners, urged the government to get a grip on the situation and enforce the law before someone gets killed.

“We ask the authorities to get control of this urgently because this could even end up causing fatalities,” he said in a phone interview. Any violence by “very small, very radical groups of taxi drivers,” is unacceptable and should be dealt with by the courts, he said.

Most Dangerous

Uber has received reports from its drivers of taxis corralling cars, honking their horns, screaming at the drivers and throwing stones, said Michael Shoemaker, head of the company’s Colombia operation.

“The good news for us, at the end of the day, is that it hasn’t yielded any real damage to people, and in most cases the cars have not been damaged,” Shoemaker said in an interview in Bogota.

The Transport Ministry’s press office didn’t reply to an e-mail and a phone call seeking comment.

Caracas, Bogota and Mexico City are the most dangerous cities in the Americas in which to take a taxi, according to Steven Dudley, a director of InSight Crime, a Washington D.C.- based research group that monitors crime in Latin America.

The U.S. State Department warns its nationals not to hail taxis in the street, and also recommends avoiding Colombia’s crime-ridden public buses. That leaves leaves U.S. citizens with few options for getting around Bogota, a city of about 7 million people with no subway system.

Safety First

Uber is attractive to security-conscious Colombians because the company checks that its drivers have clean criminal and driving records, while the application gives users the driver’s photo, license plate and phone number.

“People enjoy the other characteristics of the service but, fundamentally, safety is the number one reason why people use it here, and across Latin America,” Shoemaker said. “We bring a level of supervision and control and inspection that makes it incredibly safe compared to the alternatives.”

There is a lot to be scared of in Bogota. One taxi crime, known as the “millionaire ride”, involves stopping the car to enable armed accomplices to enter, before taking the victim to ATM machines to empty his bank accounts. Last year, Colombia extradited seven men to the U.S. accused of knifing to death a Drug Enforcement Agency agent in a botched taxi kidnapping.

Bogota also has the most dangerous transport system in the world for women travelers, according to a poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 15 major of the world’s largest capitals cities and New York.

This explains why about 60 percent of Uber’s Colombian users are women, according to Shoemaker.

Taxi Drivers

Ospina says Bogota’s reputation for taxi crime is exaggerated. The city’s taxis provide 800,000 rides per day, he says, which generated 2,050 complaints in 2014, or less than 0.1 percent of the total. Ospina says he knows of only two passengers, including the DEA agent, who have been murdered in taxis during the three decades he has been a driver.

The biggest victims of violence are the taxi drivers themselves, with about 100 having been murdered over the last five years, often in robberies, he added.

The current law, which pre-dates the existence of smartphone applications, allows white public vehicles of the kind used by Uber drivers to provide transport for institutions such as hotels, schools and businesses, but not to pick up members of the public in the way that ordinary cabs do. Many cars using Uber in Bogota are registered legally with hotels or other businesses, and pick up passengers via the application on the side.

Taxi Licenses

To operate a taxi legally in Bogota requires a license, equivalent to taxi medallions used in many U.S. cities. The licenses trade in a secondary market, and are currently worth about $40,000 each.

Medallion prices in New York have fallen amid competition from Uber, after rising to more than $1 million each in 2013. Prices are currently rising in Colombia, according to Ospina.

Smartphone applications that allow passengers to hire cars that don’t belong to registered taxi firms are prohibited in Colombia, the Transport Ministry said in Nov. 22 statement published on its website. The company is also violating the law by setting its own fares, according to Ospina.

Uber calculates fares automatically based on a GPS track of the route, and charges the user’s credit card, limiting the potential for common Bogota scams such as rigged taximeters, fake surcharges, concealing the price table and pretending not to have change.

Dissatisfaction with a legal taxi service isn’t a justification for allowing others to flout the law, Ospina said.

“They are offering a good service, we acknowledge that,” Ospina said. “But Uber can’t hide behind the argument that, if we are offering a bad service, piracy is OK.”

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