It was 9 p.m., still early by taxi driver Gerardo Chacón’s normal hours, a shift between 4 p.m. and 4 a.m. in downtown San José.
Chacón wears an armband to protect his pale skin from the sun, keeps his money in a belt and a knife in the door, but there are some things you can’t avoid, he said. As he drove down a street just west of the San José court buildings, the lights were out for blocks on end, leaving entire neighborhoods dark, ominous and eerily quiet.
Desperate, homeless bodies shuffled in the shadows, sprawled about on rags or cardboard cutouts, a paltry layer against the filth and grime of the sidewalks.
On street corners, prostitutes touted their wares, passersby whistled and small groups of shady-looking young people, clad in T-shirts, tattered jeans and talking in loud voices, lingered by dimly lit bars.
It’s easy to stereotype in this environment – where police are rarely, if ever, seen, and where danger lurks around every corner – a place foreign to all but a very few who haunt San José’s streets at night.
But as Chacón pointed out, he has no choice.
“Every day I take my life into my hands,” he said.
He pointed to a group of kids and immediately said, “I wouldn’t pick them up,” a prime example of the guessing game taxi drivers have to play each night in San José to earn their living.
Sometimes they guess wrong.
Last week, Enrique Campos, a taxi driver from Heredia, was shot and killed by two young people described by witnesses as “dark and skinny,” according to a police report.
Campos, who was married with four children, had been a taxi driver for nearly 20 years, and had survived two previous assaults, one in which he was severely beaten by a group of assailants, another in which he jumped from his vehicle to escape a man who threatened him at gunpoint.
“One of us gets assaulted every night. You just don’t hear about it because there’s no use – nothing happens anyway,” Chacón said. He pointed to his knife in the driver’s side door but said he hesitates to use it.
“I’d rather preserve my life than save a few thousand colones,” he said. “Let them take it all.”
An informal Tico Times poll of 10 of the 6,557 licensed taxi drivers in San José found that eight had been assaulted and robbed in their taxis, and all 10 of them had friends who were assaulted in the past year or two.
The problem is a serious one, and growing more so every year, according to Orlando Barquero, of San José’s largest taxi cooperative, Coopetico.
“It happens every day. It’s just so easy,” he said.
As a member of the board of directors of the cooperative, Barquero has heard all the horror stories.He tells of a taxi driver who was beaten, robbed, then dropped off in a local trash dump, left to die. Another man had his throat slit by a passenger sitting directly behind him; yet another was burned alive inside his vehicle.
Few, if any, of the taxi drivers have any idea of what’s coming when they pick up the passengers, he said.
“It’s almost impossible to know. They come aboard, and ask to be taken somewhere.
Then, when you get there, they make like they’re taking out their money and instead it’s a gun or a knife. They take everything, the meter, your money, the radio, then throw your keys in the ditch,” he said.
According to Barquero, on a good day, near the end of a shift, a driver may have as much as $50 in the vehicle, plus his meter, which Barquero said usually runs between $100-150. If the driver has a CB radio, add $400.
On a salary averaging about $100 a week after such expenses as insurance, gasoline and repairs, an assault or two a year can make a serious dent in annual earnings, Barquero said.
Some taxi drivers simply resort to not picking up anyone suspicious looking. Of course, that’s “bad for business,” he said.
Many taxi drivers make a point of not taking passengers into known dangerous neighborhoods such as Alajuelita, León 13 and Los Cuadros de Guadalupe, he said.
“Even if we pick someone up at the hospital, and they are sick, but ask to go to these neighborhoods, we won’t take them. It’s too dangerous,” he continued.
In such areas, he said, a gang can surround the car, beat up the driver and steal everything in a matter of seconds, then disappear.
Even if there are witnesses, he says, no one steps forward to help, or report the incident to the police.
“In these neighborhoods, there is a law of silence,” he said. “But we hear about these things happening every day.”
It’s rare that the police arrive in time, even when called, Barquero said.
“It all happens so quickly, it’s almost impossible for the police to arrive in enough time to help,” he said. He laments that the difficulty of catching those who rob taxis is enough that the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) doesn’t bother to pursue most cases. OIJ spokesman Francisco Ruiz acknowledged the problem, saying that at least one or two assaults on taxi drivers are reported to his department each week.
He admits it’s all but impossible to catch someone after the fact – particularly in individual cases.
“Everyone thinks that when they get robbed, the OIJ will take care of it. But with just one case, it’s hard to do. We look for a pattern, one robbery in an area, then two, up to five. That’s when we have a chance of catching someone,” he explained.
In the meantime, he said he thinks it’s important that taxi drivers join together, educate themselves and learn about ways to defend against such crimes. He points out that in the United States, many taxi cabs have protective barriers between the driver and passengers – a solution probably too expensive for most drivers here.
“It’s a difficult problem, because robbing a taxi in Costa Rica is a very easy thing to do,” Ruiz said.