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Shopping for the right thing to wear at the wrong end of a gun

Posted by voidmanufacturing on October 6, 2008


In Mexico, shopping for the right thing to wear at the wrong end of a gun
Monday, October 6, 2008

MEXICO CITY: Exclusive clothing boutiques line Avenida Presidente Masarik here. A Burberry coat? A Corneliani suit? A Gucci scarf? Have enough pesos, and they are yours.

But tucked on a leafy side street in the Polanco neighborhood is a shop unlike the others, one whose bustling business says much about the dire state of security in this country. At Miguel Caballero, named after its Colombian owner, all the garments are bulletproof.

There are bulletproof leather jackets and bulletproof polo shirts. Armored guayabera shirts hang next to protective windbreakers, parkas and even white ruffled tuxedo shirts. Every member of the sales staff has had to take a turn being shot while wearing one of the products, which range from a few hundred dollars to as much as $7,000, so they can attest to the efficacy of the secret fabric.

“If feels like a punch,” a salesman said of the shot to the stomach he received.

Just who is willing to fork over thousands of dollars for these chic shields? Customers include Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, not to mention assorted royalty, movie stars and other VIP’s.

As Mexico grapples with an increase in drug-related violence, sales are steadily on the rise, the company said, though it declined to provide precise figures.

Those who duck into the private boutique, passing first through a metal detector, run the gamut.

There is the surgeon who finishes work at the hospital late and feels vulnerable while walking through the parking lot to his car. Now, that potential burglar can take a shot at him with a .38-caliber revolver, a 9-millimeter pistol or a submachine gun and still not pierce his lightweight, heat-resistant and quite fashionable coat.

There is the newspaper distributor who has scores of employees who collect papers from him in the wee hours of the morning to drop at doorsteps across the capital. He stopped at the boutique the other day for a jacket that can keep him in business even if someone tried to knock him off and take the rolls of cash he carries around.

There is the bullfighter who is scared not of bulls but of bullets and consequently ordered a matador’s suit that can withstand gunfire.

Then there are Mexican politicians and business executives, some who have received threats and others who want to supplement their existing security measures, which in many cases already include bulletproof cars, home alarm systems, round-the-clock bodyguards and panic buttons.

“What we offer is one more chance at life,” said Javier Di Carlo, the marketing manager, as he showed off the top-of-the-line Black collection in a private fitting room. “We don’t want people to say to the criminal, ‘Shoot me.’ Nobody should feel like Superman. But if the criminal does shoot, we give our customers a chance to run away.”

There is a whole lot of shooting going on in Mexico today. Every day, the papers are full of victims, bodies lying out in grotesque poses with bullet wounds all about. Some are garden-variety crime victims, but the drug cartels that control much of the Mexican countryside are behind the overwhelming majority. They pay off politicians and police officers and act as shadow governments in town after town along their transit routes. Cross them, and they do not hesitate to pull the trigger.

The rash of drug violence, together with a surge in kidnappings for ransom, has shaken everyday Mexicans. Ask a stranger for directions on the street these days, and fear is the first emotion that crosses the person’s face. He or she might recover enough to describe how to go this way or that.

Studies have shown that more and more anxious Mexicans are pouring their money into defensive measures. Families and businesses across Mexico invest $18 billion in private security measures, a recent study by the Center for Economic Studies of the Private Sector found. Some people are trying to get their hands on weapons, which are tightly regulated here but widely available on the black market. To some, bulletproof fashion is the logical next step.

Still, not everybody is lining up. Jon French, a former State Department official who now runs a security company in Mexico City, said he considered the bulletproof luxury items more about ego than anything else. Most of the killings that fill the front pages — there have been 3,000 this year alone — are drug traffickers killing rivals, he pointed out.

“Certain members of the well-to-do class here have a tendency to be ostentatious,” French said. “You see it in their bodyguards and chase cars. Some of this is so while at the country club they can talk about how protected they are. Now they can say, ‘Look, I’m wearing body armor!’ ”

But Caballero, who opened the Mexico store two years ago and has since expanded with branches in Guatemala City, Johannesburg and London, counters by telling of his loyalty club program for clients. Called the Survivor’s Club, it is open to anyone whose life was saved by wearing one of his protective garments. Its rolls, he said in a telephone interview from Bogotá, are on the rise.

To lower the chance that he is outfitting the bad guys, Caballero runs background checks on customers, checking their names against lists of fugitives compiled by the United States and Mexican governments. He points out that the clothing is not designed for the kind of warfare that is breaking out in some parts of Mexico, where drug assassins have used rocket launchers and grenades to wipe out rivals.

A bulletproof polo shirt is meant more to repel random street violence, of the kind that seemed as if it just might break out just around the corner from Caballero’s shop the other day.

Fernando Arias Carmona, a salesman, wore one of the protective leather coats while he sat at a café on Masarik being photographed. People looking on inquired into what was the fuss was about. When told that Carmona’s fashionable jacket was bulletproof, a man at the next table reached into his own jacket and said, “Let me test it out.”

Fortunately, though, the man pulled out only with his fingers in the shape of a pistol.

Then, looking at the coat again, he said, “I want one of those.”


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