Friday, November 23, 2007

Heroes: Brazil's Motoboys.

By By Larry Rothter from the NY Times/international

SÃO PAULO, Brazil - This is a city with nearly 11 million inhabitants and 4.5 million passenger cars, 32,000 taxis and 15,000 buses. Traffic jams more than 100 miles long are not uncommon, and even on an ordinary day, getting from one side of town to the other can take two hours or more.

Only one group here in South America's largest city seems immune to those frustrations and delays: the daring army of motorcycle messengers known as "motoboys." Zigzagging among stopped cars, ignoring lane markers, red lights and stop signs, they regularly menace pedestrians and infuriate motorists as they zoom their way down gridlocked streets and highways, armed with the knowledge that without them business would grind to a halt.

"Nowadays we are so integrated into the economy that São Paulo couldn't function without us," said Ednaldo Silva, a motoboy who owns an agency employing nearly 50 messengers. "People don't like us or respect us, but we are as essential to transport as trucks, and if we were to go on strike, the city would collapse."

The bulk of the motoboy's work involves rushing contracts and other legal documents from one business to another, especially for bank loans. But from car parts to architect's plans, human organs for transplant to passports or pizza, there is almost nothing he cannot or will not deliver.

"There's no way to do away with them," Gerson Luís Bittencourt, the muncipal transportation secretary, acknowledged. "They employ a ton of people and facilitate things for everyone. So what we have to do is find a way to regulate the phenomenon and restore sociability in traffic."

Though no one is sure of their exact numbers, estimates start at 120,000 and range as high as 200,000. Many work 12 hours a day or more to earn a salary of $300 a month or less.

According to official figures, São Paulo now has 332 motoboy agencies. Competition is strong, and they adopt names, often in English, stressing efficiency: Adrenaline Express, Moto Bullet, Fast Express, Agile Boys, Motojet, Fly Boy, Motoboy Speed, AeroBoy Express, Fast Boys.

With so much emphasis on speed and so much competition with other vehicles, the job is often dangerous. Broken bones and wrecked cycles are an occupational hazard, and according to figures compiled by their union, on average, at least one motoboy a day dies in a traffic accident.

"The truth is that we're discardable," said Edson Agripino, 38, a veteran of 15 years as a motoboy. "When a colleague gets hurt or killed, the first thing the dispatchers ask is 'Did he deliver the document?' "

Nevertheless, many motoboys, especially the younger ones, see themselves as free spirits or urban cowboys, defying the conventions of society and envied by stodgy wage-earners stuck in their cars and offices.

"It's great to be out on the street, on your own, watching the girls, and not in some cubicle with a boss bugging you all the time," said Fábio César Lopes, who at 29 has nine years' experience as a motoboy. "I spent five years at an insurance agency, and believe me, not only do I make better money doing this, but it's a lot more fun."

Ordinary motorists consider motoboys a plague, and hostility between the two groups is fierce and growing. There are at least 17 online chat groups devoted to complaining about motoboys, and conflicts in the street and even fistfights between drivers and motoboys are not unknown.

"I can't stand motoboys," said Flávio Kobayashi, a graphic artist. "You're sitting there stuck in traffic, on your way home after a long, hard day, and along they come with their infernal beep-beep-beep, weaving their way through traffic in complete disregard of everyone else on the road. They'll break the rear-view mirror of your car if you get in their way, and any time there is an argument they come to each other's rescue to beat up on defenseless drivers."

Pedestrians, especially newcomers from small towns in the interior, feel especially vulnerable. In a notorious incident in 2001, Marcelo Fromer, a guitarist in the popular rock group Os Titãs, was run over and killed by a motoboy with an expired license, who fled but was apprehended a year later, tried and convicted.

To bring the situation under control, the municipal government last year created an obligatory registry system. The new rules required all motoboys to pay a $110 tax, prove that they do not have a criminal record, obtain life insurance, wear a helmet, drive motorcycles less than 10 years old and carry their cargo in a rear-mounted basket with a license number on it, so they can be tracked.

But motoboys resisted the system, saying it was devised to banish them from the streets. Only 40,000 of them registered, and they organized protests that blocked some main streets. During the campaign leading up to the mayoral election here in October, some candidates endorsed their position and obtained judicial restraining orders exempting individual motoboys from registration, which eventually forced Mayor Marta Suplicy to rescind the program.

A few years ago, Congress tried a different tack and passed a law that would have made it essentially illegal for motoboys to practice their profession, which has begun spreading to other cities in Brazil. But the president at the time, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is from São Paulo, vetoed the bill, tacitly recognizing the indispensability of the motoboy.

"Everybody hates the motoboys except when they need one themselves," said Caíto Ortiz, the director of "Motoboys: Crazy Life," a recent prize-winning documentary. "When he's rushing some document of yours across town, then he becomes your savior, a hero, and you adore the guy."

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