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A Mexican Cabby's Flagging Spirits

First Enrique Sanchez's taxi was stolen. Then the nightmare called bureaucracy began.


MEXICO CITY — The long and sorry saga of Enrique Sanchez's license plates is enough to make all but the most committed reformers despair of fixing Mexico's murky bureaucracy, even in this season of political change.

Sanchez, a 46-year-old father of six, has driven a taxi in Mexico City since 1978. Courteous and honest, he earns about $40 a day using his own car and working from a licensed tourist taxi rank.

He could make more money, he says, if the city would just give him his license plates.

On Oct. 2, 1998, Sanchez stopped at an office equipment store to pick up a delivery for a client (the Los Angeles Times' Mexico City Bureau, for which he has worked occasionally for a dozen years).

As he entered the store, Sanchez walked into an armed robbery. He was herded into a back room with several employees and other customers and ordered to strip to his underwear. He was told he'd be shot if he didn't hand over the keys to his 1994 Chrysler Spirit parked outside.

The crooks used the car for their getaway. Sanchez went to a nearby police station to report the theft, was sent from office to office and finally finished the laborious reporting procedure seven hours later. The car was never found, and the case was never solved. It was just one more of the 122 cars stolen each day in the city.

Within three weeks, Sanchez rounded up enough cash to buy a secondhand Buick sedan to replace the stolen vehicle. Then his bureaucratic troubles really began.

For three months, Sanchez repeatedly tried to register his new car, but Mexico City's computerized registration system was out of service for repairs; no cars were being registered. Finally, on Jan. 27, 1999, he was able to complete the change-of-taxi certificate for the new vehicle but was told his license plates wouldn't be available for two months.

He was given a receipt showing he'd applied and paid for the plates, which in theory permitted him to keep working. But in a city known for pirate and stolen taxis whose drivers rob unwary passengers, people are reluctant to use a taxi without license plates.

He has gone back to the licensing office every two months since then, waiting patiently in line only to be told that the plates still aren't ready. More than two years after his car was stolen, he has never been given a clear explanation, except that the request is pending and that hundreds of other taxi owners face the same predicament. This week, he was told to come back in a month.

Meanwhile, "I am constantly stopped by patrol cars who want to take the car to the pound," Sanchez said. "Some let me go when I show the papers proving I paid for the license plates; others argue. I have to tell the whole story every time."

Worse, Sanchez doesn't dare travel outside Mexico City, which means he has to turn down the biggest fares. He estimates that he has rejected at least 20 such long trips, which earn $100 or more, over the past two years. That's a $2,000 loss.

In many Mexican states outside Mexico City, police unscrew and seize the license plates of traffic violators; not having plates exposes drivers to being stopped and questioned.

In adjacent Mexico state, reporters this week photographed traffic police removing plates from cars parked illegally and then soliciting $20 bribes from the owners to give back their plates on the spot. The report, in the Mexico City daily Reforma, said numerous people were seen paying off the traffic cops.

Rufino H Leon Tovar, head of the recently formed city taxi authority, said Sanchez has been caught up in the Mexico City government's efforts to restructure and overhaul its transport system. The city has had an elected mayor only since 1997, after decades of rule by a federally appointed regent, and since then has worked to combat the problem of thousands of pirate taxis and falsified permits, he said. That meant restricting the issuance of replacement license plates until additional safeguards could be developed.

Leon Tovar also said that when the new elected administration took over, there was no budget for replacing stolen plates. He said that problem has been solved and that the new plates should be ready for delivery later this month.

For veteran taxi driver Sanchez, who paid nearly $100 for his plates back in January 1999, what matters is finally screwing them onto his bumpers.

"If they'd given me my new license plates, then I could have forgotten about what happened by now," he said. "Now, each time I go there and wait in line, I relive the robbery and everything that I went through."

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