Madrid's pirate cabbies

The capital's taxi owners are fed up with unlicensed drivers taking their custom Some of them aren't afraid to get violent with repeat offenders

A "pirate" taxi driver negotiates with a potential client.
A "pirate" taxi driver negotiates with a potential client.Samuel Sánchez

Joselito always goes out in running shoes. He figures he has been assaulted around 15 times in the last 10 years, so now, every time he can, he makes a run for it. This slight, 50-year-old man - whose real name is Javier - has been risking his neck for a decade working as an unlicensed cab driver at Barajas airport. He says the last time the real taxi drivers got a hold of him, they broke several ribs. But not even that could stop him from getting back behind the wheel of his Peugeot 406. He says his wife and three children support him. "I'm just trying to make a living," he says, watching his back all the while.

"Pirate" drivers like Joselito offer their services to foreign tourists arriving at the airport's Terminal 2 and Terminal 4. He sometimes tries his luck at Atocha train station, and a few hotels as well. Joselito says he does it because he likes the job. The 70 liters of gas in the tank barely last him four days. His technique is always the same: he parks inside the T-4 parking lot and approaches potential customers in the hall. "Are you looking for a taxi? I'll take you. Let's go!" In around 20 minutes he has loaded up the car, which means he only has to pay 10 cents for parking, he explains.

As for the fares, they range between rip-off and swindle. Several workers at Terminal 4 say that some unlicensed drivers have charged as much as 120 euros to take passengers to the heart of Madrid, Puerta del Sol, when the regular fare is not more than 35 euros, including the 5.50-euro airport supplement. The irony is that just a few meters from where these unlicensed cabbies find their customers, there is a machine offering travelers estimated prices for typical routes.

I'm just trying to make a living," he says, watching his back all the while

"The trick is with the meter," explains one of the licensed taxi drivers who comes here regularly. According to him, some of these pirates are, or have been, taxi drivers in the past. "They generally have several taxis. If one gets seized, they use another one, or else they drive their own private car. What they do is, they play with the fares: they start with Fare 1, and when they reach their destination they move the meter to Fare 0, which is what we do when we've made a mistake, because it's a way to put the meter on hold without deleting the amount accumulated so far. This way, the total keeps rising. When the next customer enters the vehicle, rather than being at 2.30 euros, the meter will start where the previous customer left off. The last customer is the one who really hits the jackpot."

Joselito only has his private car to work with, though he admits that he does raise the official fare by around 10 euros whenever he can. "Forty-five euros to go downtown sounds like a good deal to me," he says unabashedly.

His trick lies in making a lot of short trips, especially to hotels and brothels. "There are bellboys who pay me 40 euros for every client I bring them. But the ones who pay the most are the girls' clubs: 60 euros if the person stays a minimum of 30 minutes, and 120 euros if he stays for an hour. That's on top of the taxi fare, of course."

As for the fares charged by these drivers, they go from rip-off to swindle

His monthly haul is around 3,000 euros, and it's all kept hidden from the taxman. He spends around 500 euros on gas and on maintenance for his beat-up car. "They have slashed my tires around 30 times," he explains.

His nickname comes from back when he was a regular taxi driver, before getting kicked out when it emerged that he was doing pirate work on the side. This former baker used to hustle up new customers at the old bus station in Palos de la Frontera (Arganzuela). "Ten years ago, I had bangs and I looked more like Joselito," a child star who appeared in syrupy musicals from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and was extremely popular in Spain and Latin America.

In fact, except for his receding hairline and sunken nose, he still has a childish face. But his line of business is not exactly a childish prank: fines for an unlicensed cab driver range from 3,001 euros to 18,000 euros, depending on whether he is a repeat offender. This particular pirate registered his car in his wife's name and has already been to court six times over 6,000 euros' worth of fines. Of these, he says he has won four cases.

The trick lies in making a lot of short trips, especially to hotels and brothels

The municipal police claim that this type of fraud is very difficult to detect, and even more difficult to prove - "especially when the passenger does not cooperate." There are no specific figures on how many pirates are doing the rounds in Madrid.

But the Madrid Taxicab Association knows them all by sight, and feels that the city could be doing more to stop them. "The problem is, there is no inspection plan and no sanction plan at Barajas and Atocha, even though these pirates are very well known to everyone and have even assaulted taxi drivers. We have reported them on countless occasions. These guys have neither the right license nor the right car insurance. They're being filmed by the cameras inside the parking lot. The police know them, but they do nothing," says Julio Moreno, the association president.

Francisco Esteban, an advisor for the Spanish Taxi Confederation, goes further: "We have accident insurance and civil liability insurance worth 50 million euros. People who get into [an unlicensed cab] are risking their wallets and their lives."

Fines for unlicensed cab drivers can range from 3,001 euros to 18,000 euros

According to industry figures, there are 16,085 taxis operating in the Madrid region. At 8pm on a recent day, the sun was still warming the engines of the 1,296 authorized vehicles waiting at the taxi rank located a kilometer-and-a-half from T-4, the largest of all the terminals at Barajas. It's a long and suffocating wait. With any luck, these drivers will spend around two hours in this no-man's land before being allowed to join the line of cabs waiting to pick up new arrivals outside the terminal four hours later. Securing a spot in the taxi line is no guarantee that they will be making a nice long trip, however.

Pedro is a regular fixture at the corral, which is what drivers call this island of cement with a restroom and a cafeteria. Pedro explains that two types of taxi drivers come to T-4: the older ones whose kids are already married "and they don't care whether they make 80 or 100 euros," and the younger ones who still have to meet their mortgage payments. Pedro falls into the second category. He's made 38 euros in the entire day and he is feeling nervous. "The last thing we need is for these dudes to come over here and laugh in our faces," he says about the unlicensed drivers.

Next to him, a group of taxi drivers is sitting in plastic chairs and playing cards. Their shirts are open, revealing graying chest hair. There's a smell of cigar smoke in the air, and the same annoyed look on their faces. "Don't know how many times I must have beaten up those chancers," says one of the more veteran ones, without losing sight of his cards. "My son's food is at stake - you don't play around with that," adds Pedro. This taxi driver makes around 1,200 euros after taxes a month, after putting in 12-hour workdays. Vehicle maintenance comes to 1,500 euros. In the last few years, the sector has seen revenues drop by 40 percent. There are 22,000 families living off the taxi trade. But now the meter shows 60 euros less each day. "Who wouldn't be angry about that?" asks Pedro.

License to drive

Besides the official taxis, chauffeured livery cabs may operate in the Madrid region if they have the right license. These vehicles must meet several requirements, such as having no more than nine seats, between 13 and 18 horse power, and not exceeding five meters in length. There are currently 622 licenses for these hire cars in the region. Transportation legislation establishes that the proportion must be one livery cab for every 30 taxi cabs, of which there are 16,085. This means that, by law, there should be 536 authorized livery cabs. An attempt in 2009 to liberalize taxis drew massive protests from a sector that feels that the saturation point has already been reached. Industry professionals estimate there are 4,000 excess licenses.

The cafeteria does not have special prices for taxi drivers. A cup of coffee is 1.29 euros and sandwiches are 4.35. A taxi driver puts several photos on the bar counter. "Look, this one with the graying hair is Luckylú. He has three cars and the taxi is in his wife's name so he can declare himself bankrupt. He's had several lawsuits, but keeps coming back." The identification parade continues amid the clatter of cups and plates. "We call this one Bienpeinao [well-combed], because he always wears hair pomade. He's one of the violent ones. And here's the dumbest one of all: Joselito. Every time he sees us, he starts running."

Tension is running high. In May, one of these unlicensed drivers assaulted a cabbie who reproached him for what he was doing. "We are sick and tired of getting robbed. Many of us mortgaged our homes in order to buy the license. I paid 18,700,000 pesetas [112,000 euros] for mine. If this asset devalues, we are left without a home. And now it seems like anyone can be a taxi driver. Just look at the internet," complains a colleague standing next to Pedro. And it's true: a simple Google search for a private chauffeur turns up 3,320,000 vehicles representing as many desperate cases. A driver named Manuel, for instance, offers to water your plants as well as take you places. "But not to the airport, I don't want any trouble with the taxi drivers," he explains over the phone. Others offer to take you to Barajas for 25 euros: "We're going in my car, but you can only fit in two pieces of luggage," warns another would-be chauffeur.

But next to Joselito, these two are mere amateurs. At 11pm on a recent night, he had 80 euros in his pocket, after finding a passenger from Vienna who had arrived at 10.20pm on a flight from Frankfurt. "He was looking for a hotel," he says. Joselito works around four hours a day Monday through Sunday, and he is reluctant to stop doing what he does best. "I don't mind getting reported," he says. "But I don't want to keep getting beaten up."

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