When Santa Ana resident Salvador Ramirez was looking for a taxi, he didn't seek out a shiny yellow car. Instead, he headed to 1st and Broadway, where drivers of old sedans offer rides across town or as far as Tijuana, despite the efforts of police to crack down on unlicensed cabbies.
Moments later, Ramirez was off to the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center in a rusting tomato-red Chevrolet Caprice. The fare was $2.
The bandit cab, "is faster than the bus and it's cheaper than a cab. You can't beat it," Ramirez said as the driver heaved his suitcases onto the curb so he could wait for a bus to San Diego.
Police say the cabs that operate without a county taxi license carry too little if any insurance, and they're often at least 20 years old and in questionable condition. Licensed cabs must be inspected annually and carry at least $1 million in insurance.
Officers began citing the illegal cabs two years ago, but, according to police estimates, there remains about one "bandit" cab for every square mile in Santa Ana. Now police are proposing a countywide task force to target them.
"We've lessened the problem, but we have not made it go away," Santa Ana Police Traffic Cpl. Eric Mattke said. "We want to work on this and we need to pool our resources to do it."
The bandit cabbies are an integral part of a community where many people do not own cars, public transportation is limited and fares on licensed cabs are beyond many people's wallets.
Many of the cabbies linger near 1st Street and Broadway, known as the place to get a ride to Tijuana.
Four months ago, there were as many as 20 drivers there. Now there are five or six. But residents and police say some have just moved to other streets.
Some use yellow cars that look like licensed ones. At the central bus station, legal taxi drivers such as Mohammad Anwar are incensed, watching unlicensed cabbies take their business.
"They are stealing $300 to $400 each day," said Anwar, who pays $520 a week to rent his taxi from Coast Yellow Cab. "We have to work 13, 14, 15 hours a day just to make a living."
Anwar said he pays about $200 for gas each week, and struggles to bring home $300 for himself.
In Latino areas, bandit cabbies are known affectionately by the Spanglish word raitero, which roughly translates into ride man. Raiteros operate throughout Southern California in immigrant areas, but their services and style vary. They are in Los Angeles at the Greyhound bus station, and neighborhoods such as Huntington Park.
A Santa Ana raitero who would give only the name Leonardo said he has been giving rides for about three years, since he retired from his factory job. He gets three or four passengers together and charges each $15 to go to Tijuana. Once there, he finds fares for the return trip.
"We're doing a service," he said. "We're doing something that people need. And I make a few dollars and get a free trip to Mexico for myself."
Eliminating cabs would prove very difficult, said Mattke, the Santa Ana police corporal. Area residents often protect them by refusing to give police information about them.
"It's an underground network and it's difficult to penetrate," said Steven Elkins of the Orange County Taxi Administration Program, which licenses taxis. "We don't get a lot of complaints." The program's board will consider a Santa Ana police proposal that it form a task force to beef up enforcement by pulling resources from various cities.
At 1st and Broadway, one business owner has repeatedly complained to police about the raiteros taking customer parking spaces. The owner declined to speak for fear of retaliation. But other business owners there say raiteros are good customers and neighbors.
When Maria Gomez, an employee at a variety store, was assaulted last year, the raiteros in the parking lot were the first to find her.
"They are nice people. You feel secure because they are always here," she said.