BEIRUT: A rash of violent robberies perpetrated by individuals posing as taxi drivers has struck fear into the hearts of commuters who are spurring the Taxi Drivers Union and the Internal Security Forces to launch a crackdown on forged license plates. Following a meeting between representatives from the Taxi Drivers Union and ISF head Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi Sunday, Marwan Fayyad, the union president, said starting next week security forces will use digital scanners to detect fake taxis. The ISF estimates there are some 25,000 fake license plates being used across the country, he added.
An ISF spokesperson declined to confirm whether the number of armed robberies involving fake taxis is on the rise, but he said that in most cases the muggers target Syrian laborers because they are easy to intimidate. He also noted that most cases have occurred in Beirut and Mount Lebanon.
One young Syrian man who was the victim of such a robbery recently described his ordeal to The Daily Star.
“I got in and he [the driver] said ‘oh, you’re from Aleppo’ and I said yes and we started chatting – I enjoy talking to taxi drivers,” said the young man, who asked to remain anonymous.
The young man noticed there were two other male passengers, but thought nothing of it until they passed through a deserted stretch of road and the taxi stopped. The man sitting next to him grabbed him and held him while the second man jumped out of the front passenger seat and got in the back, threatening him with a knife.
The men demanded $3,000, in addition to all the young man’s cash. They then took him to two different ATMs and drained his account. Being a foreigner, the young man was not able to identify the areas they drove through.
Throughout the hour and a half that they held him captive, his assailants gave him several reasons for the abduction. First they said the money was to pay for the treatment of a sick family member, then that they needed blood money to pay the family of someone their friend had killed. They also blamed the government for their lack of employment.
As soon as the thieves had what they wanted, their demeanor changed and they even became solicitous.
“They said ‘we’re going to give you a lift back, tell us where you live’ and I said ‘Please just let me out,’ and they said ‘No! It’s dangerous here!’
“Then they said they were going to give me a gift to help me relax,” and they pressed a piece of hashish into his hand and dropped him off. “They were joking, saying ‘we’ll see you next month when you get your salary,’ but I wasn’t laughing.”
Two days later, the young man reported the incident to the police, because, he said, he felt morally obligated to help try and prevent similar crimes. Unfortunately, he said, he got little help from the police and the prosecutor’s office.
“I just got robbed, and then they made me pay LL 40,000 just to file my report,” he complained.
The most frightening aspect, the young man concluded, was the boldness of his attackers. “At one point he turned and said ‘This is my face, can you remember my face? We don’t care; you can’t do anything.’ That’s when I thought they were going to kill me.”
According to the young man, his abductors claimed to be from a well-known Lebanese family from the northern Bekaa Valley.
While most of these attacks appear to target Syrians, Lebanese and other foreigners have also fallen victim.
George, who is Lebanese, was mugged after catching a taxi in Burj Hammoud one afternoon last October. Then, in broad daylight, the driver pulled over and the two passengers strangled him and held a knife to his side while they searched his pockets.
He said he was surprised when he found the police to be helpful, adding: “I’ve had bad experiences with the Lebanese police before.”
George said it took him a few days to recover. He found comfort by sharing his story with other taxi drivers. “They were shocked, and they could tell I was shaken.
“Somehow it made me feel better to tell them,” he said. Now, months later, he takes a broader view of what happened to him.
“The economy’s gotten really bad and somehow violence has become normalized,” he said. “It’s hard for working people to find jobs.”
Authorities and taxi drivers who spoke to The Daily Star advised commuters to make sure taxis have a red license plate, as well as an official decal, an identification sticker on the passenger side of the windshield and a yellow taxi light on top of the car. Official taxis should also have their license openly displayed.