PRAGUE - For more than a decade, taxi drivers here have burnished their reputation as the city's most violent, and feared, residents. In the name of protecting their turf, they have killed, beaten, jolted with electricity, extorted and otherwise terrorized their customers, rival cabbies and journalists.
Political apathy - and even acquiescence - has long abetted them. Now, for the first time, city leaders are making a concerted strike at the criminal elements in the taxi industry.
The taxis at issue are called "contract taxis," and they are a minority of the city's cabs: 15 percent, by one estimate. But they are the most visible because - through violence and intimidation - they control virtually all of the plum taxi stands in the city center.
They extract outrageous sums from unsuspecting tourists or helpless expatriates by either rigging their meters or setting a wildly inflated price when a passenger gets in a cab.
By contrast, the "radio taxis" generally cruise around looking for customers while being connected to a dispatcher who can feed them customers calling in for a cab. There are rogue drivers in this bunch, too, but over the years a handful of firms have built their reputations by playing fair.
Now, the city's chief executive, Zdenek Zajicek, plans to begin the dangerous task of reassigning a handful of the coveted taxi stands to a group of radio taxi firms - for a three-month trial period. The move is the most significant in a series of efforts aimed at cleaning up the industry.
Other measures include a new law that subjects cabbies to fines of up to 1 million Czech koruna ($35,000) for overcharging. The city is also conducting spot checks, and offenders are named and shamed on a Web page.
Soon, stands will be assigned by lottery to reputable cab companies. One company will be responsible for all the cars at a particular stand, according to Zajicek.
Threats have been made against Zajicek (pronounced "zy-e-check"). He had to take on police protection, and his wife and three young children were sent to an undisclosed location outside the city, he said during an interview.
"In the past, there has been violence, so we must cooperate with the city and state police," Zajicek says. "The state police will monitor the stands and will control it to see that the laws are being observed."
Video cameras are being set up near the most vulnerable taxi stands, and the images will be transmitted to the state police and will be saved for 48 hours, he says.
The cameras will undoubtedly help, but the problem is deep-rooted, and it remains to be seen what will happen when these drivers are out of camera range.
Prague's taxis first gained international notoriety nearly a decade ago when drivers began "juicing" their passenger seats. If a customer balked at the demanded price, the driver needed only flip a switch to send a small jolt of electricity into the recalcitrant customer.
Once, a dispute between two drivers at a stand on Wenceslas Square (the city's main boulevard) ended with one cabbie killing the other by slamming his head onto the cobblestoned street.
Several years ago, Western journalists helped police in an undercover operation that embarrassed the city's taxi companies. Subsequently, one of the journalists was beaten up when he walked past a taxi stand that had been caught in the sting.
The journalist found no sympathy from officials. Mayor Jan Koukal said matter-of-factly that the journalist shouldn't have been walking past the taxi stand.
Koukal is no longer mayor. He went on to become a senator and then left politics to go into business.
In a remarkable admission of how little authority officials apparently wield, Zajicek acknowledged that the efforts to control the drivers wouldn't be possible without the support of the majority of taxi drivers.
"There is a will in the city council now," he says. "But it would not be enough without the support of the community of taxi drivers."
The impetus for change came earlier in the year, after Czech TV exposed the cheating. Reporter Nora Novakova and an American journalist posed as American tourists.
Equipped with a hidden camera, they took a series of taxi rides from the main train station to a 5-star hotel and later from one tourist spot to another.
In four rides, all the drivers overcharged, though in one case it was minimal.
The most egregious abuse was the ride from the train station to the Inter-Continental Hotel. Instead of costing 120 koruna, the equivalent of $4, it cost 1,200 koruna - $40.
The meter actually read 1,273 koruna, and it is customary to round the bill up as a tip for the driver.
But the amount was so outrageous that even this crooked taxi driver couldn't bring himself to round up.
A ride from the city's spectacular Old Town Square up to Prague Castle - where President Vaclav Havel works - should have cost about 150 koruna. Instead, it cost 600 koruna.