Motherboard

Uber Is My Portal to the Black Markets of Mexico City

The ride-hailing app is a gateway for passengers into the capital city’s illegal markets for drugs, guns, and fake documents.

by Luis Chapparo
May 29 2016, 3:00pm

Mexico City at night. Photo: Esparta Palma

Alberto is not a drug dealer, an illegal firearms seller, or a document forger. He's a fortysomething Uber driver in Mexico City who just so happens to have those connections.

I first met Alberto last year on an Uber ride from Coyoacan to Mexico City, where I live. He and I made small talk as we rode along in his car, which is registered to him and used for Uber fares. At some point, I joked about how I wished I had a doctor's degree. That way, I could make more money than I do as a journalist.

"Well," Alberto replied, arriving at my destination. "I can help you get one."

*

I've thought about it ever since. Having made zero contact with Alberto for a year, I decided to call him up. What did he mean when he said he could help me get what I only assumed was a counterfeit doctor's degree?

As it turned out, he would show me. Alberto, my Uber driver, would be my line to a hidden side of Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world to legally authorize the ride-hailing app.

As Uber drivers come from diverse backgrounds, some of them inevitably happen to already be plugged into the criminal underworld, according to Alberto, whose crisp hairdo is a holdover from a previous life in the Mexican military.

These sorts of drivers are primed to double as middlemen between passengers and the capital city's black markets. And their networks of contacts can earn them extra cash on the side, as passengers often must tip drivers for making the appropriate connection, be it for drugs, illegal "never used" firearms, or forged passports and college diplomas.

Of course, I wouldn't actually make a transaction. But with Alberto as my guide, I'd Uber my way to a clandestine shop inside Mexico City's black market for counterfeit documents for a glimpse of how the process works.

*

Alberto picked me up at my apartment in middle-class Colonia Escandon. Destination: Tepito, one of the sketchiest neighborhoods in the capital city, where we would meet Raúl, a fake documents dealer. Trip fare was around 60 pesos ($4) and I had to tip Alberto 1000 pesos ($60) for his contacts and for covering my ass in Tepito.

These sorts of tips go unregistered for Uber. On the app, the ride showed as any other ride would within Mexico City.

Since pre-Hispanic times, Tepito's economy has been linked to the traditional open-air markets called tianguis. The locals refer to Tepito as the Barrio Bravo, the fierce neighborhood, for its reputation of criminality involving counterfeit goods, robbery, and drug selling.

Alberto called Raúl* once we were inside a certain vecindario, a historic neighborhood surrounded by small apartments. Raúl is a squat man with dark, short hair, and a childish voice, and before long we were being led by him to his secret shop of forged documents.

As far as I can tell, Alberto and Raúl have had this arrangement going for a couple years now and the two of them first met before Alberto started driving for Uber. They cater to locals like myself but Alberto said he's previously linked Raúl with Central American families in need of passports and even American passengers looking to procure false Mexican IDs.

"I've never had a problem," Alberto said.

Both of them claimed they don't do this work for the cartels, which have diversified portfolios beyond just narcotics. Raúl mentioned that some traditional taxi drivers in Mexico City serve as coyotes—low-level cartel lookouts—and that organized crime syndicates pay these driver-scouts commissions for bringing in clients.

"We also use coyotes in the streets, but they face a bigger risk of being caught, so the Uber drivers are perfect coyotes," laughed Raúl, slapping Alberto on the back.

"We also use coyotes in the streets, but they face a bigger risk of being caught, so the Uber drivers are perfect coyotes."

For his part, Alberto gave no indication of how many Uber drivers out there are like him. Raúl claimed there are "hundreds" of Uber drivers who connect passengers to the Mexico City's illegal economies and that the Uber coyotes are simply more opportunistic than traditional taxi coyotes. He said taxi coyotes will ask riders "what do you need" or "what are you looking for" as if to suggest they're timid compared to charismatic Uber drivers, who apparently chat up passengers at every opportunity.

Uber's Latin American office could not be reached despite multiple requests for comment.

*

Raúl's office was messy. It's a small, dimly-lit room inside a sketchy vecindario. The place is situated behind a tall building and smelled like ramen and dust. Alberto and I were not allowed all the way inside.

"Wait here," Raúl told us. He had to check if his shop had the right medical degree template. If not, Raúl said he would have to go to a different office to see if they had the right one.

As it turned out, he had just the right thing: a medical degree from a private college in Mexico. (According to Raúl, it was a genuine diploma acquired from a man—it's not clear who—who graduated with a doctor's degree a couple years prior.) With that template, he could do the job on a PC using the vector graphics editing software CorelDRAW. Then just scan and print.

"That's all you need to get a new identity here in Mexico," Alberto said.

All Raúl would have to do is change the name and date on the counterfeit copy. But first, it would need a new photo.

Raúl led us to a photo booth. The woman who operated the booth apparently was in on it; Raúl gave her a number that was code for the kind of picture he needed. I was dressed me in a white shirt with a skinny black tie and oversized coat, and sat on a stool. My hair was combed, clearing my forehead.

"Don't smile," the woman said.

Photo courtesy the author

She handed me a pack of six pictures with glue on the back. I handed those to Raúl. Alberto and I were then led back to Raúl's office, where he overlapped my picture on the template. "What do you think?" he asked.

I am no forged documents expert, but the template looked pretty convincing with my picture. It could be mine for 5,000 pesos, or about $400—what Raúl typically charges clients for this kind of handiwork. I politely declined.

Alberto and Raúl shook hands. We were done. They spoke business among themselves for a moment and then Alberto and I walked back out to his vehicle. Alberto asked I make a request for him through the Uber app. After canceling three other drivers who took me as a passenger first, Alberto finally managed to accept me and we started our ride—another 60 pesos—from Tepito back to Escandon.

As he dropped me off at my place, I thanked Alberto for his help.

"Anytime, my friend."

With additional reporting and editing by Brian Anderson.

Uber Earth is Motherboard's exploration of the ways Uber has already changed the world and how it stands to do so in the future. Follow along here.

Follow Luis on Twitter @LuisKuryaki.