"I have no idea what is going on," Enrique Sanchez, a taxi coordinator, told me last week when I inquired about the plans for taxi drivers to strike in Tijuana. "The director instructed us to write the messages [against the government] on our windows, then all the taxis copied one another. But we are not really informed of what is going on. I am not afraid of modernization, I just don't want the government to monopolize the industry."
For over a week, taxis de ruta (taxis who are part of a collective) have expressed themselves against the alleged corrupt government of Tijuana mayor Jorge Astiazarán. Among the (translated) messages are, "respect our patrimony corrupt government” and "Astiazarán is transportation Hitler." Taxis threatened to strike and block the streets on Monday, April 4th, but nothing happened.
I asked several drivers in the downtown area to explain why are they comparing the mayor to Hitler and what was the purpose of the messages. Most refused to speak to me or said they knew nothing of the matter. Sanchez, who has been working in the taxi industry for 11 years, did not want to talk to me at first and told me to wait for his superior. After waiting for an hour, his boss hadn’t arrived, so he opened up with his concerns.
"Each taxi de ruta supports up to four families: the driver, his relief, the coordinator, and the owner of the plates [vehicle license]," Sanchez said. "The government wants to take over the taxi industry and control it. They want to be paid 1500 pesos per vehicle a week and implement an electronic card payment. Where would that leave me? A lot of people will lose their jobs."
The mayor, who is with the PRI political party, got plenty of taxista support when he campaigned a couple years ago. Taxi drivers usually are avid supporters of PRI or PAN, since most of their bosses are affiliated with one or the other party.
But since the arrival of Uber in Tijuana over a year ago, taxis have been struggling to hang on to their domain. Also, tijuanenses have demanded better transportation: the city's system is rated as the most expensive and most inefficient in Mexico.
Taxis usually are not individually owned, but controlled by syndicates. The leader of each syndicate typically owns all the vehicles and permits and is the one who profits from the low quality but expensive service. Leaders often have close ties to political leaders and reputedly treat their employees poorly. Taxista bosses are commonly referred to as mafiosos.
Taxistas, with the government on their side, tried to get rid of Uber. But public outcry demanded Uber be allowed to operate in order to have better transportation service. Tijuanenses are tired of riding in poor conditions, in some cases sitting on buckets that function as seats and often relying on drivers who don’t follow signals and drive aggressively.
The battle against Uber was lost, but the war over the future of public transit continues. Taxistas are now fighting against a new set of rules established by the government to improve the transit system and the construction of a new rapid-transit bus system.
The project, named SITT (Sistema Integral de Transporte Tijuana), was created in 2012, announced in 2015, and is now being implemented. Modern bus lines, bus platforms, and coordinated schedules are planned.
New rules will change the names from taxi libre to taxi básico; and instead of taxi de ruta, it will be called taxi colectivo. Drivers will be required to wear a uniform and to accept electronic payment similar to San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit District card. The changes will also require vehicles to be modernized, including the implementation of an app similar to Uber's.
Perhaps most importantly, there will be regulations that make clear who the taxi permit holders are. Tijuana’s Dirección de Vialidad y Transporte (the roads and transportation authority) has issued an average of 70 infraction tickets a day to public-transit operators and removed 178 vehicles for not having proper documentation.
All the changes prompted taxistas to compare Astiazarán to Hitler, even though city hall has belied those statements, offering to have a dialogue with taxistas without the threats of strikes and/or blockades.
Though the strike that was scheduled for last Monday didn’t happen, taxistas say they will march in protest. They just don’t know when.