Drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, Patricia Torres Matus slows her car to a halt on a Tuxtla Gutiérrez street crowded with vehicles and pedestrians. She scans the busy stretch through her window while waiting for the traffic light to turn green.
It’s noon in the capital of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. This is a good time for taxi drivers to get business, says Torres Matus, one of the four co-founders of Safe Drivers (Choferas Seguras), a local collective of women drivers. But it is also easy to get distracted by the bustle, she says, and it can be unsafe, too.
But, the 63-year-old driver says, the collective prioritizes rider safety.
“We are a safe option in transportation for women, boys, girls, the elderly, in these times where insecurity grows every day,” she explains.
Adriana Alcázar González/GPJ Mexico
As Mexico’s transportation sector evolves, its road networks remain the most widely used transport infrastructure in the country, but the system is not without challenges. Ground transportation in Chiapas is crowded, risky and costly for some. But a group of local women is working to ease travel for members of their community.
According to the World Bank, Mexico’s urban population has doubled over the last 25 years, creating increased demand for basic services and public transportation.
Chiapas, where 4.4 percent of the country’s population lives, is home to 568 kilometers (353 miles) of railways. But urban modes of transportation, including the trains, are not accessible to all, especially to those living in remote areas of Chiapas. This population relies on cheap minivans or buses, known as “colectivos.” On average, a one-way ride on a colectivo costs between 5 and 8 Mexican pesos (25-40 cents).
Though affordable, this form of transportation is often crowded and unsafe. In a 2018 survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía), 68.8 percent of respondents in Tuxtla Gutiérrez identified public transportation as an insecure setting.
While crime rates in Mexico have surged since 2008, the homicide rate in Chiapas has historically been lower than that of other states. But petty crimes, including theft, are becoming more common here, says Alejandra Maya Corzo, another founder of Safe Drivers.
“We hear on the radio or on social networks that there are reports or notices of assaults on people at ATMs or on public transportation — attempted rape,” she says. “I believe that all of us have some relative who has been assaulted on public roads.”
To operate a taxi, drivers are required to apply for a license through the state. But unlicensed taxis abound on the streets of Chiapas, and sometimes the drivers commit crimes against the city’s commuters.
“The regulation is clear on the requirements to obtain authorization: the colors that should distinguish public transportation, the signage that must be possessed, up to the requirements that the taxi drivers must have,” Maya Corzo says. “But there are some copycats that have all the serial numbers, signage — minus the authorization. And when one is on the street looking for a taxi, you can’t always distinguish between a copycat and authorized taxi.”
Before forming Safe Drivers in October of last year with Torres Matus and two other women — Milagros Flores Mandujano and Ana Luisa Torres Calvo — Maya Corzo was a taxi driver but did not own the car. She says she would work 17-hour shifts, earning up to 1,200 pesos ($60) a day, most of which went to her boss. The job was dangerous, too.
“You always have to be ready, because just like it is unsafe to get in a pirate taxi, it’s equally unsafe picking up passengers. You never know when you’ve picked up a criminal,” she says. On one occasion, she was physically assaulted.
Adriana Alcázar González/GPJ Mexico
Through their collective, the women offer secure rider services to family members and friends who need to get to school, work, doctor’s appointments and other places. Prices vary per trip but are comparable to taxi fares, which cost anywhere between 40 and 80 pesos ($2-4). Each member of the collective completes an average of six trips on weekdays. Weekends are busier, they say, because people tend to go out for leisure.
Modesta Ramírez Saldaña, a friend, relies on Safe Drivers for travel in the city.
“I have to get around at different hours, and I don’t dare get into a taxi. It scares me,” she says. “They assaulted my girl in a taxi, and it was an experience for us.”
But Maya Corzo says the team of four are not licensed taxi drivers, so they are careful not to identify or advertise themselves as such.
“We don’t say we are taxi drivers, because we don’t have authorization,” she says. “Our cars are not designated as taxis. They are normal cars, like any other.”
Some may confuse the women drivers for pirate taxi drivers, but there are currently no state-issued licenses for the type of rider services they provide, says Maya Corzo, adding that they don’t serve the general public.
A number of people outside their tight-knit customer pool have found out about the collective’s services, says Torres Calvo, but providing services to those they know is a deliberate strategy.
“When they ask us for service, they have to say who referred them to us, and only if it is one of our clients, we offer service,” she says of new riders. The vetting process helps keep the drivers safe from criminals who pretend to be customers.
All four women say that creating the collective has helped them earn an income while doing something they are passionate about. The growing interest in their secure rider services presents them with opportunities to make more money and expand, Torres Calvo says. Two women drivers have expressed an interest in joining the collective, she says. The same vetting process for customers will apply for drivers, she adds.
Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish to English.
This story originally appeared on Global Press Journal, an international news organization that trains and employs local journalists in developing markets.