MEXICO CITY — The study guides given to prospective drivers for the Uber car service in this plugged and glutted megacity contain warnings that they might find certain neighborhoods and intersections less than hospitable.
But Ali Aaron Huerta wasn’t even in one of those areas when two taxis sandwiched his Renault Logan late one Friday night as he was dropping off a customer. After the usual taunts and threats that Uber was not welcome here, the cabbie in back whipped out a stick and smashed his taillight.
“It was a very ugly experience,” Huerta said.
In its swift colonization of the world of paid transport, the multibillion-dollar smartphone-operated ride-hailing service faced and often vanquished resistance from the natives. There’s been stiff opposition from courts and taxi drivers in cities such as Paris, New Delhi, Madrid. The battle here is playing out on a grand stage, amid 20 million people and 5 million vehicles, in traffic that can frazzle even the calmest nerves.
In recent months, Mexico City’s taxi drivers, who operate the largest fleet in the world, with 140,000 registered cabs, have rallied together to try to drive out Uber. Against their high-tech adversary, some taxi drivers have gone old school: baseball bats to windshields, slashed tires, bare fists. One day in late May, taxi drivers went on strike demanding the government outlaw the service, as well as rival applications such as Cabify. More than 1,000 people marched chanting “Uber Out” and taxi drivers used their cars to block streets across the city, further ensnarling traffic.
“We can’t compete against this illegal company,” said Jesus Juarez Cruz, 34, a driver and representative of a taxi stand in the wealthy Bosques de las Lomas neighborhood. “For so long, we’ve been paying the government our taxes, and it’s not fair that overnight they give everything to a company that breaks the rules.”
Uber started operating in Mexico City two years ago and has quickly grown to more than 100,000 users and several thousand drivers, with fares often cheaper than those of the taxi fleet. Company officials said they pay all taxes and follow applicable laws. But the taxi drivers see Uber as a foreign import that can dominate because it largely avoids the city’s cumbersome bureaucracy.
Taxi drivers say they must pay to paint their cars the authorized colors, to get licenses, to rent space for taxi stands and to insure themselves. They believe the law is clear that only those, like themselves, who receive government concessions are allowed to drive paying customers around the city.
“Uber is outside the law and committing a crime,” said Renato Consuegra, a coordinator with the Organized Taxis of Mexico City, the group that is leading the fight.
Consuegra and other cabbies gathered this week at the Zocalo, the city’s central plaza, with signs that read “Uber is Illegal,” and “We are Uber’s concubines.” As one of their leaders spoke about how their resistance should be non-violent, shouts rang out: “Uber’s involved with narcos, that’s why the government fears them!”
Some drivers dislike the whiff of elitism — how Uber tends to cater to wealthier residents with credit cards — and that it’s a foreign company swooping into Mexico. But the bottom line for most is the threat to their livelihood. Daniel Garcia, a 15-year taxi veteran, said his average earnings of $500 a month have been cut in half since Uber surged into the city.
“If there are confrontations, it’s the government’s fault, because they are not protecting us,” he said. “Uber’s getting stronger. Each day it’s worse.”
The conflict has become a priority for the city government. The taxi operators have filed a legal complaint against the secretary of mobility, Rufino Leon Tovar. But in an interview in his office, Tovar seemed calm about the prospects of finding a solution to the standoff through public dialogue and compromise.
He praised Uber’s service as “comfortable, efficient,” and one that “gives its users and the people of the city a perception of great security.” Some taxis, meanwhile, inflate their prices, he said, and have cars that are dirty and too small, “and this doesn’t generate confidence.”
Tovar admitted that there was a legal gray area because of the new nature of Internet-based applications such as Uber but that “not everything that is outside the law is illegal.” He suggested the solution lay in regulating Uber drivers, making them pay for a permit, to help level the playing field with taxi drivers. But he said the government would not allow taxi drivers to resort to vigilante justice, nor would Uber probably be blocked from operating here. Anything that took cars off the road, he said, was an improvement.
“You can’t close yourself from technology, from the technological advances of the world,” he said. “We can’t go against what the people want.”
In the meantime, some Uber drivers have taken precautions in navigating an increasingly hostile city. Some have installed tinted windows, or dress in more casual street clothes, or hide their dashboard cellphones to appear like normal drivers. Some taxi drivers have gone so far as to warn they would “hunt” their Uber counterparts.
“Violence. Much violence,” said Gabriel Helguera, an Uber driver. “They smash cars. They beat drivers up and send them to the hospital. This shouldn’t be happening.”
The intimidation has not slowed the company, which now operates in four Mexican cities and has plans to expand. In response to the taxi strike, which lasted about six hours, Uber offered its users two free trips. Downloads for the application that Monday, a company official said, rose by 800 percent.
“Because Mexico doesn’t stop, today Uber is free,” the company said.
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.