Spending four hours in a taxi in Medellin can teach you many things about the city. Not everything you hear may be true, but the taxi drivers betray a sentiment not expressed at the World Urban Forum where the mayor is boasting disputed security gains.
According to five of six polled drivers, public safety is the biggest issue facing Medellin at the moment. Minus one, all drivers agree security in the city has worsened over the past few years, contrary to official claims that security has improved.
The names of the drivers are withheld for security reasons.
Taxi 1: From Colombia Reports HQ to Prado Centro
8 years of experience driving taxis
There are many neighborhoods, said driver number 1, where one cannot work as a taxi without paying off leaders of local criminal gangs. They are not random, wandering delinquents, but organized by neighborhood militias often aligned with national drug trafficking organizations.
For example, “the zone between Villanueva and Parque Bolivar belongs to the ‘Los Negros’ gang,” a group tied to “Los Urabeños.” A taxi driver cannot idle by a curb within this area to pick up passengers without a weekly payment to the Combo. These neighborhoods, said the driver, are mostly located in the northwest and east of the city.
The problem of extortion has worsened considerably in the last few years, said the driver. He pays a total of about $10 a week to work in the poorer neighborhoods. He added that the police are well aware of these pay-offs to drug dealers, but are corrupt and do nothing, preferring to receive a cut from the gangs’ drug profits.
Bus drivers have to pay as much as $13 a day. Businesses operating in gang territory also have to pay a monthly “protection fee.”
Taxi #2: From Prado Centro to Bolivar Park
15 years of experience driving taxis
Medellin’s worst problem is crime, from robberies, assaults, to murder, according to driver #2. “Five years ago, things were better,” said this driver. “Recently it’s just been getting worse, with more drugs on the streets.”
The driver also mentioned there has been an increase in homeless people and beggars in the city.
Taxi #3: From Parque Bolivar to Parque San Antonio
4 years of experience driving taxis
This driver, the youngest of this Taximeter sample, said that he preferred to have a “positive outlook.” Unlike his colleagues, driver #3 said that violence and crime has been decreasing. He said he routinely refuses to pay the extortion fee, avoiding the problem by always remaining in motion. “If you don’t stop, you don’t get charged. If I’m waiting for someone, I’ll just circle the block until they appear.”
The driver cited homelessness as being the Medellin’s biggest problem right now, pointing to people sleeping on the street.
He also conceded that criminal groups remain a big problem in areas such as San Javier in the west and La Sierra in the east.
Taxi #4: From Parque San Antonio to the Chamber of Commerce
22 years of experience driving taxis
Driver #4 said that extortion and other criminal activity were the the most serious issues in Medellin presently. He pointed to the area he had been parked, across from the central San Antonio park, saying that it was one of the most dangerous places to operate.
The experienced driver also said that crime and corruption have been getting worse, not better, in recent years. Driver #4 blamed the economy for this. On arrival at the Chamber of Commerce, he continued: “even here, you have to pay now.” How do you know who to pay, I asked? “They come up to your window, saying “Collection, collection!”
Criminals groups are taking advantage of the recent closing of bus lines in Medellin which is switching to a non-cash integrated public transport system, especially to the poorer neighborhoods, to charge taxis instead.
Taxi #5: From La Playa again to Prado Centro
20 years of experience driving taxis
This cabbie was the only to claim that Medellin’s biggest problem was the economy, not crime. According to driver #5, he does not have to pay an extortion fee to park on the corner in the central business district.
He also said that the amount of homeless people sleeping on the streets is “increasing, increasing every year.”
Taxi #6: From Prado Centro to Colombia Reports HQ
20 years of experience driving taxis
This driver was quick to list crime and particularly extortion as Medellin’s largest problems. He mentioned the central Berrio Park as one of the places downtown where you have to pay. According to him, the protection fees that a driver has to pay in the center is a daily operational cost, rather than weekly, like other neighborhoods.
According to this last driver, traffic in the city has improved in recent years.