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Violence Against Uber Drivers in Buenos Aires is Escalating

Uber has reported 750 incidents so far this year.

By | [email protected] | October 1, 2018 11:16am

(Photo via Luciano Thieberger/Clarín).

Tensions between taxistas and Uber drivers are at a peak. In just one night last week, five cars were set alight in a blatant act of hostility that has cast light on the simmering tensions between the two factions. Although this escalation in violence has prompted widespread criticism, authorities remain reluctant to prosecute the caza-Ubers (“Uber hunters”), a reticence born out of the city government’s animosity towards the private transport app, which has defied legal hurdles to continue operating without regulation in Argentina’s capital as well as in the Buenos Aires province. However, after a week of attacks, taxi and Uber drivers seem close to boiling point with little being done to assuage these tensions.

Any one of Uber’s one million users in Buenos Aires (the city and the province) can vouch for Uber drivers’ fear of being found out by their public counterparts. Drivers will often insist on measures to make them less visible, from pretending to greet a “friend” and sitting in the front seat to being dropped deep in a car park at Ezeiza, away from the taxis occupying the main drop-off point.

These measures come from a fear of reprisals, particularly from the infamous “caza-Ubers,” or “Uber Hunters,” a group of vigilante taxi drivers who carry out (often violent) attacks against the platform’s drivers in Buenos Aires. Operating in a climate where they face limited, if any, legal repercussions for their actions, the caza-Ubers are becoming increasingly brazen in their actions.

So far this year, Uber says that there have been 750 attacks against its drivers in Buenos Aires, in incidents ranging from threats and graffiti to shots being fired at cars or vehicles being damaged with acid. Back in May, a group taxi drivers even threatened a 79-year-old man for being an Uber driver even though he was just dropping his grandchildren off at school.

The situation appears to be escalating. On the night of Wednesday September 26th, five vehicles were set alight in three linked attacks in Almagro, Flores and Villa Crespo, the suspected work of caza-Ubers, although none of the cars’ registered owners were driving for Uber at the time.

Two of the cars had been driven for Uber more than two months ago, while one of them is being used by a Cabify driver. Cabify is an app similar to Uber, allowing passengers to order private cars from their smartphone, but is technically legal in Argentina. However, its drivers face similar harassment to Uber drivers, who do not differentiate between the two platforms.

Speaking to Infobae, the Cabify driver, 37-year-old Venezuelan immigrant María Carolina Roldan, said that this attack had rid her of her livelihood at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to find formal employment. “This car was my only source of work,” she said. “I came from Venezuela two years ago with my daughter, Sara, and this was my only source of income. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do because finding a job is increasingly difficult. I have sent my CV to a million places and no one replies. I’m desperate.”

On Thursday, Secretary of Security for the City of Buenos Aires, Martín Ocampo, told Radio Mitre that the scope of these attacks indicates that they have been carried out by an organization. “We are following various paths [in our investigations] and there will be news on this issue, because they will pay for what they have done,” he said, adding, “These are organized groups. People don’t just happen to get together to burn cars.”

This escalation in the rate of violence may force a change in tactic from Buenos Aires’ authorities, who up until now have been slow to act on the caza-Uber issue. Although the sheer number of incidents is staggering, what is even more shocking is the lack of prosecution. Uber added that of the 750 registered incidents this year, only 250 drivers had made a formal complaint. The others had declined to do so, fearing possible reprisals.

On Thursday, in the first ruling of its kind, taxi driver Nicolás Beno was stripped of his license and given a two-month suspended sentence and two years of community service for chasing and attacking a Cabify driver with a slingshot in Palermo last year. He will be banned from driving a taxi for five years and although this is one case of justice, this case reveals the relative impunity that caza-Ubers enjoy and exploit in Buenos Aires.

(Photo via Border Periodismo).

There is a dichotomy at the heart of Argentina’s relationship with Uber, between one side eager to incorporate the application and regulate it (and benefit from its tax contributions) and another side determined to continue punishing the service for defying regulatory constraints. Now, tensions are rising as taxi drivers, already suffering in an economic climate where Argentines have reduced spending power, face more and more competition as those struggling to find a job turn to Uber to make ends meet.

This week, Uber Executives told Reuters that Argentina represented Uber’s fastest-growing market in the world, due to the country’s economic downturn which has seen rising unemployment levels and reduced purchasing power for many Argentines. Uber estimates that in the last three months, it has had 1 million active users in Buenos and 55,000 active drivers, adding around 7,000 new users and between 300 and 400 new drivers every day.

As formal employment options dwindle in Argentina’s contracting economy, those seeking jobs turn to Uber as an option to pay their bills until they find another job. “The average lifespan for a driver in Latin America is about three to four months. It means they use Uber as something temporary,” Fernandez Aramburu, who runs Uber business development in Argentina, told Reuters.

(Photo via Clarín).

Drivers also benefit from Uber’s lack of regulatory framework in Buenos Aires. Normally, Uber’s revenue comes from charging drivers a 25 percent commission on takings, but legal restrictions mean that riders in Argentina can only pay drivers in cash or with foreign credit cards. Uber has no way of collecting commissions until legal developments allow it to accept local credit and debit cards.

In July, Mendoza’s local government passed the Mobility Law, which officially legalized private taxi services in the province, despite protests from the Taxi Union Aprotam, who appealed to the courts citing the unconstitutionality of the law. This motion did not pass, although the law has introduced various operation regulations, such as ensuring that drives will only be allowed to accept passengers through the app and will be forbidden from picking up passengers on the street. Furthermore, now that the service is legal, Uber will have to pay local taxes and establish an office in Mendoza.

This move has taxi drivers in Buenos Aires worried. Uber has been operating in the city for two years, although it has faced repeated legal action and criticism from the government. However on Tuesday, the opposition presented a bill to Buenos Aires’ government which would legalize and regulate Uber and other transport apps, although with similar conditions to those implemented in Mendoza, such as a geographical limit for vehicles, a quota on permits and tax requirements for drivers and their companies.

The initiative was launched by Marcelo Guouman from Unión Cívica Radical, who told Clarín that this bill was necessary to ensure the safety of passengers and drivers. “We are currently in a situation of complete irregularity that hurts consumers, due to a lack of regulation, and drivers, due to unfair competition. We need to guarantee the security of our citizens and drivers, and generate fair competition with the rest of the modes of transport,” he said.

Uber has long been embroiled in a legal tangle over its continued operations in Argentina, and although some are trying to smooth the path for the transport app, other members of the executive has shown themselves to be reluctant to change. Last week, Judge Ladislao Endre ordered Uber and General Manager of Uber Argentina, Mariano Otero, to pay an AR $60,000 fine each for “organizing lucrative activities not authorized on public roads.” He also ruled that the company was banned from operating for the next two years, although it is expected that Uber will appeal this ruling.

“The Justice’s decision confirms the need for regulation,” said Uber. “It is the responsibility of the city to encourage the incorporation of technology into mobility, which has already been adopted by more than a million people. The Supreme Court has already confirmed the Cassation Court’s verdict, which declared Uber’s legality from a penal perspective.”

Taxi drivers protest against Uber. (Photo via Luciano Thieberger/Clarín).

The government has to act. By allowing their ideological preoccupations to prevail in their treatment of these cases, they have created a power vacuum where the caza-Ubers can act with relative impunity and increasing levels of violence. Whether they are in favor of Uber or not, they must recognize the crimes that are taking place from a judicial perspective and reject violence in any form. Until that happens, caza-Ubers will become ever more audacious in their persecution of people just trying to make ends meet.