Campaign warns of 'pirate' drivers at border

They are not licensed to transport passengers

SAN YSIDRO —The 25,000 or so people who cross the border northbound every day need a way to get to their destination.

Many take the trolley or get picked up by friends or family.

But many need to travel beyond San Diego, to places like Los Angeles and farther, but are not familiar with the transportation companies that offer that service.

That's where "raiteros" eagerly step in.

These are wildcat drivers utilizing unauthorized vehicles, frequently nothing more than a car, to transport passengers.

This week, a group of public officials, law enforcement agencies and an association of legitimate companies launched a campaign to warn of the dangers of trusting these illegal drivers.

"These so-called 'raiteros' have become a plague in our community for more than 30 years, putting travelers as well as drivers at risk," said Richard Gomez, president of the Border Transportation Council, which represents companies operating legitimately.

These firms have trained drivers with the proper license and insurance and their vehicles have passed muster with the California Highway Patrol.

Gomez said that illegal businesses take advantage of the situation at the border, where travelers are looking for a way to get to their destination at a low cost, and don't know that the companies offering to take them are not authorized to do so.

Chula Vista Councilman Steve Castañeda said that this practice puts the passengers who travel in these vehicles in danger.

"You don't know who you are going to travel with or what vehicle they will be using," said Castañeda on Wednesday, during a press conference to announce the campaign.

He said that any person with any vehicle can offer this service. At times, he added, wildcat drivers use vans and stuff as many people as they can inside.

"They don't have a license, insurance, federal or state permits or the training to transport passengers to their destination," added David Alvarez, councilman for the San Diego's Eight District, which includes San Ysidro.

"When our relatives come for a visit, we have to alert them and ask them to pay attention to what transportation they will be using," he said.

In response to the increase of this practice, the San Diego Police Department has carried out four sweeps in the area this year.

Officers arrested 25 people, seized two vehicles and nearly $1,000 in the period of January to June.

During the "Anti-Raiteros" campaign, organized by the Council for Border Transportation, flyers will be distributed in San Ysidro and signs have gone up that warn of "raiteros piratas."

"We recommend that passengers look for an identifying document that confirms that the vehicle is legitimate," Gomez said.

One person who used a "raitero" a few months ago swears he will never do so again.

Martín Armenta, 25, a Tijuana resident, said he had crossed the border one evening and looked for a bus to take him to the Los Angeles Airport. The wait to cross in the pedestrian lane took longer than he had anticipated and he needed a ride quickly.

A bus driver at the site told Armenta that he made several stops along the way and could not get to Los Angeles as quickly as he required.

Armenta said that a man overheard his conversation with the bus driver and told him that he "knew a person that could take him in the time he needed," so he accepted.

The vehicle that driver used was a sedan. Armenta said that the seat belts did not work and that the he and three other passengers were not allowed to put their luggage in the trunk.

The four passengers and their luggage traveled from San Ysidro to Los Angeles squeezed into the car. He said the ride was a harrowing one, and at times he even wondered if he was being kidnapped.

"It was a terrible experience."

He said he paid $60 to the driver, who gave $10 to the man who initially had told him the about the ride.

"They apparently pay people to hunt for passengers right after they cross the border."

alexandra.mendoza@sandiegored.com

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