A Cabbie's Crusade

Javier Peña is a maverick cabbie on a mission to turn the notorious Miami taxi industry into a respectable profession. So far he's been threatened, shot at, fined, and fired. In other words, he's making progress.

On the way out of the office, Peña runs into PTRD director Joe Mora, a beefy, ruddy-featured man who chats agreeably with him. Peña registers his complaints with Mora as well. "Papou, you know about all those drivers who buy the doors on the Beach," he says agitatedly. "They're killing us."

Mora replies that many times the drivers are doing it to themselves. "They cut each other's throats," he observes.

"They have to," Peña argues.

Steve Satterwhite
It's a time-honored tradition for hotel concierges, valets, and cabbies to make money off each other
Steve Satterwhite
It's a time-honored tradition for hotel concierges, valets, and cabbies to make money off each other

"For scraps?" Mora queries, shaking his head. Mora says the drivers have to start coming forward with specific complaints if they want the system to change. "You know, I'm the guy who issues citations," he reminds.

Peña's cell phone rings and Mora jokes, "Just answer, Bellevue."

On the way down, the elevator goes haywire, stopping every two floors and showing the wrong floor numbers. "Of course," chortles Peña darkly. "This is Miami-Dade County. Even the elevators are crazy."

Once outside, Peña expresses his frustration with the county bureaucracy, but he's not ready to give up. "Mora, he's a good guy," he allows. "He's got good intentions, but he's got to follow orders."

A few days after his attempts to interest the county in shenanigans at Central Cab, Peña shows up for lunch at Edelweiss on Biscayne Boulevard with bad news. He's lost his cab.

His taxi-driver's license (also called a chauffeur's registration) expired two months ago, but he'd been driving on it anyway. Drivers must renew the license every year, but Peña didn't bother. He figured the county wouldn't approve it "because I'm the troublemaker for them." He says county inspectors caught up with him one day and issued a bunch of tickets. Then the owner of the company he drove for took back his taxi.

"I knew these things were going to happen," he shrugs. He recalls that in February 2002, when he was pushing the county to enforce the codes designed to protect driver rights, he was threatened by the owner of one cab company. He even drew up an affidavit for a police incident report stating that the owner threatened him outside county offices. Peña's account paraphrased the alleged threat: "Taxi drivers that have interfered and opposed the taxi companies in Miami in past years have been known to turn up missing and dead and you better stop!"

During the spring and summer of 2002, Peña and a small group of like-minded drivers began collecting information about specific incidents of cab companies, permit owners, or other drivers breaking the rules. This wasn't difficult as Peña was the unofficial leader of a cab stand (designated curbside spaces where taxis wait for customers) at Sixteenth Street just west of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Drivers at the stand get a lot of business from the Loews Hotel, which is directly across the street.

Peña became leader of the stand because he has a loud voice and a quick mind, and used these assets to impose a semblance of order on the other drivers, who were often jockeying for position, arguing, and irritating nearby store owners. He spent a lot of time talking to drivers and picking up their many grievances about shady cab-company operators, overzealous enforcement officers, and the door-buying racket.

He began recording specific incidents of door-buying, complete with dates, cab numbers, and other crucial details, and sending notice of them to the county, the City of Miami Beach, and tourism officials such as Stuart Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association. He also sent them to the owners of hotels, cab companies, and car-rental agencies involved in the incidents. He began receiving threats from angry drivers he'd identified. One day last summer, just before climbing into his cab, he noticed a bullet hole in the driver's door. A warning, he figured. A Peruvian taxi driver friendly with Peña (who asked to remain anonymous) says word went out among drivers that to associate with Peña was to bring trouble on yourself, either from door-buying drivers or irritated county inspectors. "They want fusilar," he whispers, making a gun shape out of thumb and forefinger to illustrate to shoot. "Everybody a friend of Javier, they want kill him." He drags a finger across his throat.

Meanwhile another group of drivers at Central Cab was complaining to company president Boris Shvartsman that they couldn't make an honest buck because of the door-buyers. Shvartsman, a stocky Russian Jew who emigrated to Miami at age 40 to become a construction engineer but ended up driving a taxi for years instead, was sympathetic. At 63 years old, gray-haired and full-faced, his tiny black eyes are shrewdly appraising but not unkind. Tattooed on his left hand in fading dark ink: Odessa 1940. "I got this when I was eleven years old," he says sheepishly, embarrassed at a childish whim to mark the date and place of his birth on his skin. His years as a driver have also stamped Shvartsman with an appreciation for the rigors of the cabbie's life. "I was taxi driver eighteen years," he reflects. "This is very hard job. Dangerous, a lot of robbers, and 100 degrees in the summertime. But not so many drivers then. You could make money. Driver today, he work twelve hours, collecting three-dollar jobs."

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