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An industry fortified by Mexico's drug war

Companies that bulletproof cars are thriving amid the violence. Touting their own success is a delicate affair.

October 20, 2012|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Jose Eduardo Llanos, a Global Armor executive, shows a car with its interior stripped in preparation for installation of a high-end protection package at the company's plant in Ecatepec, Mexico.
Jose Eduardo Llanos, a Global Armor executive, shows a car with its interior… (Richard Fausset, Los Angeles…)

ECATEPEC, Mexico — As the country is driven deeper into despair, their industry coasts to success.

That is the weird reality of the Mexican car-armoring business, and its top executives, like Esteban Hernandez, have spent time pondering the paradox.

After all, they can't just dismiss the violence and skip off to the bank. They live here. Their families live here. Hernandez, 47, gets around town in an armored Jeep.

The Colombia native is the general manager of a bulletproofing company called Auto Safe, in Mexico City, and his conscience is untroubled. The way he sees it, he and his competitors are providing a vital service in a time of national turmoil.

Strolling past a couple of bulletproofed Porsche Cayennes at an armoring plant in this Mexico City suburb recently, Hernandez compared his work to that of a prescription drug or medical supply company.

"Our job," he said, "is to make sure that people don't die."

Mexico is hardly the land of happy motoring these days, given all the disappearances and drug cartel shootouts and the record number of kidnappings reported in 2011.

Increasingly, those who can afford to are turning to Mexican companies to have their European luxury sedans and leviathan American SUVs transformed into rolling safe rooms, kitting them out with steel plating, Space Age bulletproof fibers and specially treated sandwich-like layers of thick glass.

Mexico is home to more than 50 armoring companies that bulletproof about 3,000 cars per year, taking in about $135 million for the work. The industry has been growing by 8% to 20% a year for five years, the same period in which Mexico has famously struggled to contain its explosion of organized crime, according to Fernando Echeverri, president of the Mexican Assn. of Automobile Armorers.

The after-market armoring usually goes unnoticed, because the bulletproof plating is installed on the inside of the car body.

But a big shootout can thrust the hidden technology into the national spotlight. Photos of bullet-riddled SUVs have become an enduring cliche of Mexican crime coverage. And in a way, the armored car, in drug-era Mexico, plays a role similar to the one the stagecoach played in the Old West: a setting for some of its most harrowing stories, and an expression of modern technology that sometimes influences how those stories play out.

In April 2010, Mexicans marveled at the Jeep Grand Cherokee that was struck by hundreds of bullets during an ambush attack on Michoacan state's security minister, Minerva Bautista Gomez. Four people were killed in the shootout, and though some of the bullets penetrated the SUV, Bautista survived with minor injuries.

The most recent high-profile attack came in August, when federal police opened fire on a pair of American CIA operatives in the state of Morelos, an as yet unresolved case of either mistaken identity or chilling malfeasance. In that case, the armoring job on the victims' Toyota Land Cruiser, which was strafed with dozens of bullets, was also credited with helping save the Americans' lives.

Perhaps sensing an opportunity to tout — delicately, of course — a Mexican success story in troubled times, Hernandez, Echeverri and other members of the armorers trade group opened the doors of one of their factories to journalists in late September, a few weeks after the Americans' SUV was attacked, to discuss the "myths and realities" of the business.

The setting was the headquarters of Global Armor, a company that boasts, on its website, that it had the honor of armoring Pope John Paul II's popemobile in the late 1990s. Its hangar-like workshop was safely separated from greater Mexico City's grim industrial sprawl by high concrete walls topped with jagged broken bottles.

Hernandez, in a presentation on the history of armored cars, noted that it was Colombia, during the height of its cocaine-fueled violence in the 1980s, that pioneered the car-armoring business in Latin America. Mexico's industry took off a decade later, with help from a number of Colombian executives like Hernandez, who exported their expertise.

Echeverri said the Mexican companies now support about 5,000 jobs, despite competition from Texas and elsewhere, where a number of companies vie for the attention of security-minded Mexicans.

The executives described the various levels of protection they offer their clients: At the bargain end, the "anti-assault" package, which promises protection from the likes of Uzis and .44 Magnums. Cars at this level are outfitted with 1/8-inch-thick steel plates, 4/5-inch-thick glass, and 13 layers of Dyneema, an "ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene" that its maker says is 15 times stronger than steel.

The price, after the cost of the car, is about $35,000, roughly five times what the average Mexican worker earns in a year.

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