Border violence leads to armor-plated vehicles
Thursday, March 5, 2009
SAN ANTONIO -- The drug violence in Mexico has gotten so bad that booming numbers of Mexican and American professionals are having their cars fitted with armor plates, bulletproof glass and James Bond-style gadgets such as electrified door handles and push-button smoke screens.
Until recently, it was mostly movie stars, business moguls and politicians who took such precautions. But now, industry officials say, the customers include factory owners, doctors, newspaper publishers and others who have business on both sides of the border and fear killings, kidnappings and carjackings by drug dealers or people in their debt.
The customers "don't have to be very big," said Mark Burton, chief executive officer of International Armoring Corp. of Ogden, Utah. "This becomes almost a necessity."
One San Antonio company said it expects a 50 percent increase in business this year.
The modifications typically cost $80,000 to $100,000, and they are being done not just on limousines, but on Toyotas, Hondas, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.
"I feel we need to be in a cocoon that is impenetrable," said a businessman who runs factories in Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and has gotten two Chevrolet Suburbans armored since October 2007. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he fears for his family's safety after one of his sons was the victim of a kidnapping attempt.
The war between Mexican authorities and the country's cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine cartels has killed 1,000 people so far this year. Last year, Juarez alone had more than 1,100 slayings. The cartels have killed police, military officers and civilians from Cancun to Tijuana as they battle for control of drug-trafficking corridors.
Customers get not only armor plating but tires that will run when flat and bulletproof glass, which bursts into a spider web pattern but won't break, even when shot with an AR-15 assault rifle, a weapon of choice among drug smugglers.
Other customers buy a package that will turn a Ford F-150 pickup or SUV into something out of a Batman movie: A button releases a cloud of white smoke for escaping a pursuing car. If the assailant makes it through that, the driver can release spikes to flatten the pursuer's tires. And finally, if the attacker makes it to the car, electrified door handles can give him a nonlethal jolt.
Jorge Valencia, who has been working in the security business in Mexico for most of the past two decades, said his company bought its first armor-plated car in the mid-1990s, but it was mostly for politicians, and mostly out of an abundance of caution.
Nowadays, the danger is far greater, he said, noting that many kidnappings are happening in public places.
"The main streets in Ciudad Juarez have assassinations in the middle of the day," said Valencia, who did not want his company's name to be used for fear of putting his clients in jeopardy.
Companies that install bulletproofing -- or "blindaje" in Spanish -- have been doing a booming business in Mexico, too. But some businessmen, like the Juarez factory owner, who lives in the United States, are convinced the armoring is better in the U.S.
Under a 2004 regulation, U.S. companies need an export license from the Commerce Department to ship a car that has been armored out of the country. The rule is aimed at preventing drug dealers and other criminals from acquiring such vehicles.
Before the rule, Trent Kimball, CEO of San Antonio-based Texas Armoring Corp., put armor plating on vehicles for a customer who claimed to be a rancher. Kimball later found himself testifying at the customer's drug-trafficking trial.
Texas Armoring, which started in the 1970s armoring limousines and other vehicles for world leaders, did about 100 cars last year and expects to complete 150 this year, Kimball said.
Associated Press Writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report from El Paso.
On the Net:
Texas Armoring Corp.: www.texasarmoring.com
International Armoring Corp.: www.armormax.com