Mexicans turn to armour-plating

 

Here car crime may seem out of control, but in Mexico city with 104 vehicles stolen every day, nearly half by violent means, drivers are turning to armour-plating, says Gabriel Moreno

Carolina stared through her windshield into two gun barrels pointed at her face by two masked men. They ordered her out of her car in a dark and deserted intersection of Mexico's capital city. Frozen with fear, the businesswoman could not bring herself to meet the eyes of the assailants, who opened fire on her car.

When the bullets bounced off, however, they quickly ran off in search of easier prey.

Only months before, Carolina's husband, worried about a growing wave of kidnappings and robberies targeting drivers, insisted that she have her car armour-

plated.

Rising crime and a growing conviction that the authorities were powerless to guarantee safe streets has pushed Mexico's elites to turn to armour-plated vehicles.

"Demand for armour-plated vehicles in the past five years has almost doubled because of the levels of crime we are living with," says Jose Ramon Abraham, director of a Mexico City armour-plating firm.

At least 1,500 vehicles, mostly owned by businessmen and government officials, were armour-plated last year. That's up 50 per cent from the 1,000 that were protected in 2000. The reasons behind the boom are readily apparent: in Mexico City, an average of 104 vehicles are stolen each day - at least 40 per cent of them by violent means.

Security experts say the rise in violent crime is linked to the availability of firearms. Local congressmen estimate that among Mexico City's 18 million inhabitants, there are 500,000 illegal handguns, which are available on the black market for about $110.

The costs of protecting a car with armour plating range from about $16,000 to $120,000, depending on the thickness of plates, the bullet-proof resistance of glass and reinforcement of door frames. Bullet-proof tyres, special brakes and suspension systems are also available - at further cost.

ALMOST 50 per cent of world demand for armour-plated cars comes from Latin America. Mexico's armour-plating industry is in its infancy compared with Colombia and Brazil, which account for most of the regional business, according to Martha Beatriz Manrique, who set up an armour-plating company in the Colombian capital of Bogota. Other nations where there is a similar demand include Russia, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, Ukraine, and South Africa.

In December, Volkswagen launched its Passat Protect, an armour-plated car with a price tag of $80,000. It expects to sell between 50 and 80 units in Mexico this year. Audi, part of Volkswagen, also imports protected vehicles to Mexico and expects to sell about 80 armour-plated cars this year. "Demand for armour-plated vehicles is growing, unfortunately, for our Mexican clients," says Carlos Fernandez, director of Audi's Mexico unit.

Security is vital for Carolina. After her escape, she hired bodyguards as an added security measure. "No precaution is too much," she said, "and there is never an absolute guarantee of security."