Can Brazil Ever Guarantee the Safety of Ride-Sharing Drivers?

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The recent murders of four ride-share drivers in Brazil shows how these services are struggling to keep their staff safe, despite increasing security measures.

Four drivers belonging to the ride-sharing apps, Uber and 99, were killed on December 13 in the city of Salvador, the capital of Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahía. The drivers were tied up in a shack, beaten and then tortured after being called to the Jardim Santo Inácio favela, according to a fifth driver who managed to escape being murdered.

On December 17, Bahía state governor Rui Costa said in a news conference that a local gang leader ordered the killing of the drivers because “his mother made a request” for a ride and Uber “cancelled” it.

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While this bizarre motive has been widely reported, news portal G1 stated that the police were still investigating the matter and had not confirmed the reason behind the massacre.

On December 27, the Bahía state police announced the arrest of gang member Benjamin Franco da Silva who they say was involved in the killings and confessed that the gang’s motive was to steal the vehicles, according to a news release. Four other suspects were identified, but two were killed in a shootout with police. The bodies of the two other suspects were found dead without further details being provided by police.

This is not the first time drivers from Uber and its Brazilian competitor, 99, among others, have been targeted.

In “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” a book published in September 2019 about Uber’s rise to global fame, Mike Isaac wrote that 16 Uber drivers were killed in Brazil before the company introduced safer practices in 2016.

Due to Brazil’s cash-heavy economy, rides were allowed to be paid for in cash directly to the driver and accounts could be created with nothing but an email address.

“Thieves and angry taxi cartels struck. A person could access Uber with a bogus email, then play a version of ‘Uber roulette’: They’d hail a car, then cause mayhem. Vehicles were stolen and burned; drivers were assaulted, robbed and occasionally murdered,” wrote Isaac in an excerpt of his book published by the New York Times.

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The conditions facing drivers for ride-sharing apps in Latin America are brutal. Yet many have flocked to these jobs, which are easy to access, requiring little more than a driver’s license and no criminal record.

The drivers have faced regular violence from taxi drivers defending their turf and have been increasingly driven underground as governments seek to regulate the industry.

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Uber has over 600,000 drivers across 100 cities in Brazil, and the Guardian reported that many of these began working for the company after the country’s brutal recession left 12 million people out of work.

Ride-hail service drivers have been targeted elsewhere in the region. In Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, dozens of attacks have been declared, frequently from other taxi drivers, CNN reported.

Outbreaks of violence and even murders of drivers have been seen in Mexico, Colombia and Peru, among others.

Although ride-sharing companies have tightened regulations and state they are using artificial intelligence and machine learning to map out problem areas and identify risks, it is difficult to see how the safety of their drivers across Latin America could be measurably improved.

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