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.

Central Cab is unusual in the local taxi industry because it functions less like a corporation and more like a collective. The company is composed of about 85 permit owners who individually lease them to drivers. They also elect a slate of officers to manage their assets, including the two-story headquarters at 740 Alton Rd. The company itself provides a radio-dispatch service and insurance to drivers for a monthly fee, and holds a weekly "court" composed of Central officers, who rule on minor disputes between drivers. Roughly 220 cabs and 650 to 700 drivers work under the Central Cab banner.

Shvartsman says door-buying, which became a noticeable phenomenon a few years ago, is now rampant among drivers at all the companies servicing beach towns. The effects are worse because business, even during the high season, is down from past years. "I complained to the City of Miami Beach, to PTRD," he remembers. "I explain to the people from PTRD how easy it is. Companies like Flamingo, Miami-Dade, Sunshine, Century -- these companies don't have radio service. How drivers for these companies get jobs to hotels? They got a telephone from the doorman." Shvartsman says his pleas were met with little enthusiasm. "Everybody tell me: 'Okay, sure, sure. No problem. We help you,'" he recalls. "I say it's not me that's needs help. It's the drivers."

To make matters more difficult, Shvartsman says, the City of Miami Beach began reducing the number of curbside taxi stands. Shvartsman believes it's the result of door-buyers pressuring the city by complaining about disorderly drivers who upset business owners. Regardless, the reduction has forced drivers who want to make money on the Beach to join the door-buying gangs.

The city's parking director, Saul Frances, has heard this theory. "The cab industry feels that the buying of the doors is a vicious cycle," he explains. "That if the drivers don't participate in door-buying, then the hotels will get cab stands removed by complaining about the drivers, thus facilitating more door-buying." Could that be true? "It's possible," says Frances noncommittally, adding that he responded to the drivers' concerns by actually increasing stand spaces by about twenty taxis.

Who are the door-buyers? According to Peña and a number of other drivers, one of the biggest cartels is run by a group of Brazilians. Peña maintains a list of 246 hotels, apartment buildings, and condos whose employees (or those of valet companies servicing the front doors) he says participate in the buying and selling of fares. The list, which he got from driver friends, includes a radio code, the address, and the going rate at each place. Another driver from Central Cab, who doesn't know Peña, put together a different, smaller list of establishments where he was personally solicited for money.

The way the system works is simple: The concierges and valets call a number provided by cartel drivers and someone at the other end dispenses jobs to drivers through cell phones, two-way radios, and beepers. Sergio Gomez, a Brazilian who used to work for Central Cab (he currently drives for Super Yellow), says when he first got into the Miami taxi industry about two years ago he was immediately approached by fellow Brazilian drivers who advised him to join the game. So he did. "They tell you you have to pay the hotel or you can't make money," he recalls. "They give you a radio for jobs." It cost Gomez $32 a week to get the radio, plus $8 or more each time he was tipped to a moneymaking fare waiting at a hotel. "Sometimes they're already waiting with a hand out like this," he says, stealthily holding one hand behind his back, palm up.

Later Gomez quit the racket because he figured it wasn't worth the hassle. "You start thinking, with all you're paying [the kickback plus the weekly fee to stay in the program], at the end of the day, you're not making anything," he says, tapping the brim of his Old Navy hat thoughtfully. "And the other drivers are angry. They want to kill you."

Shvartsman says it's not just the Brazilians: "This Brazilian mafia, they call it. Is not only Brazilians. It's Russian and Cuban and Haitian who buy doors. From Central Cab, too, a lot of Russian drivers are involved. I remember [the county] tell me: 'Boris, before you start complain, clean your own house.'" He shrugs. "I said, 'Driver and I, we don't care who it is steal money from our pocket. Is the same result.' Only county can stop it."

Peña says the Brazilian-led door-buying mostly occurs during the day, when airport traffic is heaviest. To demonstrate, he pulls out a cell phone and dials the number of one of the known door-buying operations. It's the evening hour. There's no answer. "See, they only operate during the day," he confirms. "The guy on the line probably won't even speak English because he's waiting for his buddy to call from the hotel. You walk up to one of these guys on Lincoln Road or Ocean Drive during the day and ask them to take you down the street, they won't do it. Only airport jobs." Peña is frustrated because, in his mind, the door-buying is so blatant. He doesn't understand why the county hasn't shut it down.

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