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Bandit Taxis : Cabbies Lose Livelihood as Illegal Operators Invade Suburbs


SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — Cabby Jeff McGuire remembers when he could earn $250 on the night shift, picking up passengers outside bars in Huntington Park and South Gate.

Then, about two years ago, bandit taxis--driven by cabbies without city permits, driver's licenses or insurance--began to appear, five deep at times in front of the bars.

As their numbers have grown, McGuire's livelihood has plummeted. Some nights he finds no fares. Other nights he is lucky to make back the $95 he spends on gasoline and dispatch and insurance fees.

Throughout the San Gabriel Valley and Southeast areas, cabbies like McGuire complain that they are losing half of their business to bandit cabs. The primary reason appears to be a crackdown in Los Angeles, where police and transit officials have arrested more than 700 unlicensed cabbies in two years. Many illegal cabs have fled to outlying areas.

Cities like San Gabriel, South Gate and Lynwood, with large numbers of Latino residents, offer promising new territory for the mostly Spanish-speaking drivers.

Legitimate firms say the bandits frequently overcharge customers and occasionally become abusive. Yet police typically do not cite or arrest the unlicensed cabbies unless they are caught in the act of picking up passengers, authorities said.

"Some nights, I'll give up early and go home because it doesn't make sense for me to be on the street," said McGuire, 30, who drives for Day & Nite Yellow Cab in South Gate. "I think the problem has gotten so far out of hand that nobody wants to tackle it."

Transit officials said 600 to 1,300 bandit cabbies operate in Los Angeles County. They rely on illegal dispatching services or use scanners to intercept radio calls of legitimate companies and beat the licensed taxis to the customers. The boldest companies advertise in Spanish-language telephone books and newspapers.

Some paint their own vehicles yellow and hit the streets, while others lease cars from unlicensed companies for about $40 a day. Some legitimate companies contribute to the problem by operating more cabs than their license allows, said Duke Perrin, Day & Nite's president.

Although Day & Nite is the only licensed cab company in Huntington Park and South Gate, taxis on the street recently included Courtesy Cab, Holiday Cab and Express Cab. When dispatchers were asked for the companies' locations, they gave bogus addresses.

Several licensed cab companies complain that cities east of Los Angeles are doing little to address the problem. Los Angeles police and transportation officials have run sting operations to catch the bandits, and illegal cabbies face a maximum $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Although several Southeast cities have similar penalties, police seldom target bandit cabs. In Huntington Park, fines are as low as $30.

"There is no way we can fight these people. Someone from the cities must arrest (the bandits)," said Timmy Mardirossian, owner of licensed Bell Cab Co. in Arcadia.

Police say they do not have the manpower to focus on the problem. The illegal business often goes unnoticed until companies complain, said Capt. Gary Kennedy of the 91-member South Gate Police Department.

"Answering calls of violent crimes takes priority over (bandit) cabs," Kennedy said. "Sting (operations) are labor and time intensive. PDs aren't equipped to do that."

Legitimate drivers condemn bandit cabbies as unscrupulous and sometimes violent rivals.

On a recent Friday night, for example, Day & Nite's McGuire was chased for about 15 minutes through South Gate, South-Central Los Angeles and Huntington Park by three bandit cabs. The drivers apparently were angered because a photographer, inside McGuire's cab with a Times reporter, took their photographs. One of the bandits rammed McGuire's cab from behind.

The rear bumper on McGuire's cab was slightly damaged, but no one was injured in the incident. Huntington Park police later arrested Manuel Lopez Uribe, 22, who was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

McGuire, a father of four, said he carries a 70,000-volt Taser gun in his taxi to guard against attacks. He and his colleagues say they fear violent run-ins.

"I'd rather go up against the people who have robbed me than these bandits," said Day & Nite driver Ron Cookson, 49, "It's impossible to talk to them. I've been doing this for 13 years and this is the worst I've ever seen it. They're becoming more aggressive."

Bandits themselves say they are not out to cause trouble, that they are simply trying to earn a living.

"It's a good job," said Walter, 25, a Courtesy Cab driver who is bilingual, as he picked up a passenger in South Gate this week. "I make $125 a day, less gas. On the weekends, I make $175 to $200. I usually work in downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood but the customers (call from here) so we pick up."

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