January 21, 2008 / 3:18 PM / in 9 years

Brazil bike messengers want respect, threaten chaos

<p>Motorcycle messengers known as "Motoboys" ride their motorcycles during a protest in Sao Paulo January 18, 2008. Motoboys are protesting against Sao Paulo mayor's proposed road project, which will prohibit motorcycles from riding in the main highways of the city.Paulo Whitaker</p>

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Fast, furious but vital.

That's Sao Paulo's "motoboys", the army of motorcycle messengers who deliver the documents that keep Brazil's financial capital ticking, even if it means terrorizing other road-users.

Reviled for kicking cars, breaking rear-view mirrors and beating up drivers who cross them, the motoboys are nonetheless essential for companies that need paperwork or other items transported quickly across traffic-clogged Sao Paulo.

Now they are up in arms against planned measures to regulate their trade.

Last Friday, a protest blocked streets in Sao Paulo and more actions are planned in coming days and weeks, threatening to bring commuter chaos to the world's third largest city.

"This is a historic moment for our profession. We want to stop being just a bunch of people and to be recognized," said Aldemir Martins de Freitas, president of the Sindimoto union.

In all, there are about 650,000 motoboys, mostly poorly educated lads from the slums surrounding Sao Paulo.

Their anger is centered on government plans for higher mandatory insurance and to ban them from the express lane of Sao Paulo's main urban highways, the notorious Marginal Pinheiros and Marginal Tiete. They will also make protective gear compulsory.

However, the new scheme would also create an exclusive lane for motoboys on another key artery, Avenida 23 de Maio.

Union leaders hope to meet with Mayor Gilberto Kassab this week. He has said the new measures are just an experiment and if they do not prove successful, they might not be implemented.

"The animosity between motoboys and other road-users is growing each day," Folha de S.Paulo newspaper said in an editorial on Monday headlined "The War of the Motoboys."

Blood on the Tracks

It is dangerous work. In 2006, about 380 motoboys were killed and 9,000 injured, according to the Brazilian Motorcylists Association. It's common to see a motoboy sprawled prone on the road after a smack with a car.

Despite the danger the motoboys face, other drivers are not sympathetic.

"I'm tired of having my car kicked as they change lanes. If you argue with one, five others come out of the blue to threaten you. We think of them as bandits," businessman Eurico Ferreira said.

Benjamin de Souza, 26, has worked as a motoboy since 2005 and rejects the bandit label. A father of two girls, he sees the resentment as part of Brazil's social divide.

"Society denies us support. They don't want to share space with bikers, who are poor. We are exposed and drivers have lots of iron around them."

"What is the problem we cause? Falling and dying? That's a bigger problem for us, believe me."

Editing by Angus MacSwan and Kieran Murray

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