The office towers of Mexico City’s Santa Fe neighborhood jut up into the sky, an elaborate arrangement of modern architecture encircled by weaving highways, shopping centers and parking lots. Separate from the rest of the city, Santa Fe provides residents and visitors with a sense of cold, clean, security and a smorgasbord of shopping opportunities.
The neighborhood is also home to the showroom of Miguel Caballero, a tactical clothing company that supplies various units of Mexico’s police with thick bulletproof vests. The company, like other private sector security service providers, is also embracing Mexico’s consumer market. In addition to creating full-body armor suits for assault teams and riot police, Miguel Caballero’s tailors handcraft elegant outerwear that is fitted with the company’s proprietary bulletproof technology.
Because of increased violence in Mexico, body armor has become the new fashion accessory among the country’s elite – many are wearing bulletproof vests to walk to the grocery store or drive to work in armored cars. And companies that make this equipment are witnessing a surge in sales, with stylish jackets being outfitted with vests that block bullets from AK-47s and luxury cars equipped with shatterproof windows.
Oscar Loaiza, a Colombian national who serves as Miguel Caballero’s Mexico Sales Director, walked in front of a rack of hangers holding up a selection of fitted undershirts, traditional police vests and finely tailored hunting jackets.
“We’ve got a pretty wide catalog,” he explained, adding that what sells the most in Mexico are the vests that are worn underneath the clothes.
“We’ve also got more casual designs that can be worn lightly but offer protection—such as the reporter’s jacket. A lot of reporters come to look at these,” he added.
Another variety is what he called “the Puffy Vest,” a blue vest with bulletproof panels that don’t bulge out, carefully tailored from smooth fabric with tags that read “Miguel Caballero” and “Mexico Boutique.”
“It’s very casual, you don’t even know it’s protective,” he said. “It’s for executives who leave meetings and dinners at ten at night.” They come in red, yellow and blue.
According to Loaiza, in Latin America at least eight presidents wear Caballero’s jackets, as Chavez and Uribe also did in their time. The most famous actor they’ve worked with is Steven Seagal, he explained.
“We also have sporting jackets—a lot of bodyguards wear these, you can see them outside the restaurants in Polanco wearing these. It’s a totally bulletproof jacket,” he said. “It can stop a 9MM a .38 a .22, but for an AK 47 it needs a special plate in addition – it’s a 12-inch plate that protects the organs. It can stop an AK 47,” he said, holding up a one and half inch thick plastic sheet.
These jackets, he said, look like any other sold on a Macy’s rack. The difference: the armored jacket costs thousands of dollars.
“This jacket could pass for a regular jacket. You know you have it on, you feel the protection, but it’s not noticeable. A businessman who goes out to a restaurant can put this on,” he explained.
Jason Forston is an executive vice president at the Texas Armoring Corporation, a company that builds bulletproof cars. “We have clients on both sides of the border,” he said. “Mexico has always been a good market and lately it’s been even better.”
Although in terms of annual homicides, Mexico’s security dynamic has improved in recent years, extortion, kidnapping and robbery continue to be viewed as serious concerns by many citizens.
“In the last six months of 2012 we saw a [sales] spike of 10-15 percent,” Forston explained. “Most of our clients are private sector. We focus on wealthy individuals, executives, business owners,” he added.
According to Jose Eduardo Llanos, chairman of the Mexican Automotive Bulletproofing Association, the private sector [demand] is growing.” Estimates he provided show that in 2012 Mexicans purchased close to 2,500 bulletproof cars.
“Usually they’re luxury cars and 80 percent are SUVs,” Llanos explained.
But in addition to bulletproofing luxury SUVs, Texas Armoring outfits low-profile sedans — clients who are billionaires but will go for a mid-size Ford to avoid attention.
“Before we used to bulletproof a lot of luxury cars, but now the trend is for a lower profile. Now it’s more Toyotas, Mazdas, Suburbans,” he said.
Luis Cano, the 39-year-old, sharply dressed sales director at Total Shield, a security-focused custom car workshop just outside Mexico City, walked through his company’s garage past an array of automobile frames, each stripped down and fitted with a custom-made patchwork of steel plates, plastic panels and bulletproof fabric.
He revved the engine of a fully bulletproofed Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, letting the engine rumble while pulling the car forward a few yards and partially lowering the driver side window. “This one has level 3 protection, for urban assaults; the glass is 21 millimeters thick,” he explained. “This is for small arms, up to a .45 magnum,” he added.
Later, inside the company’s testing facility, an employee in a suit and dark sun glasses raised a .22 caliber pistol and aimed at one of the company’s bulletproof windows. “BANG!” he fired the gun with an ear-ringing crack. “BANG! BANG! BANG!,” he emptied the gun’s clip, firing at the window, cracking the glass at the point of impact, but never penetrating.
Cano walked over to the window, running his hand along the smooth, unbroken backside of the glass. “You can touch it and it won’t cut you,” he explained.
While the benefits of bulletproofing a car are obvious, the price tag of between US$30,000 and US$60,000 can be a major obstacle for many clients here.
“It’s for people with money in conflict zones,” Llanos said. For Mexican armoring companies, the country’s capital, Mexico City, has always been the biggest market. “But now a lot go to Monterrey and Guadalajara,” two cities to the north, Llanos explained. For the Texas Armoring Corporation, most clients come from cities just south of the U.S. border.
“Unfortunately I think the market will keep growing,” Llanos said. “We predict the market will grow to provide new solutions for more people,” he added.
Nathan Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @LatAmLENS.