Amid Mexico's Drug War, A Rush For Bulletproof Cars

A Toyota Sienna minivan has been bulletproofed i i

A Toyota Sienna minivan has been bulletproofed in a Mexico City shop that retrofits vehicles with armor. The glass in the door window is considerably thicker than in regular car windows. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
A Toyota Sienna minivan has been bulletproofed

A Toyota Sienna minivan has been bulletproofed in a Mexico City shop that retrofits vehicles with armor. The glass in the door window is considerably thicker than in regular car windows.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

Third of five parts

More than 3 1/2 years after President Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico's drug cartels, the pace of killings has increased and 2010 is on track to be the deadliest yet in a campaign that has already claimed as many as 28,000 lives.

While the insecurity has put a damper on business and tourism in Mexico, the increased violence has been a boon to the security sector, including the armored car industry.

At the workshop of Protecto Glass in Mexico City, workers cut plates of ballistic steel with a torch. The garage is filled with brand new luxury cars and SUVs. A shiny new Mercedes sedan has been stripped down to its frame and is up on a lift. In the back, workers are tearing into what looks like a very expensive BMW. A Lincoln Navigator is being reassembled.

Jonathan Nader, the plant engineer at Protecto Glass, points to a Porsche Cayenne that is undergoing a transformation.

"What we're basically doing now is we are taking out everything. The dashboard. The seats. It gets stripped down to bare-bones naked. If it's your car and you come in and see it, you get kind of scared," Nader says.

Protecto Glass has been in business since 1993. It is one of 14 armoring companies certified by Mexico's federal government. In a normal year, Nader says his company bulletproofs roughly 120 cars. But last year they did 170, at a cost ranging from $16,000 to $75,000.

A Mercedes sedan in the midst of being bulletproofed. i i

A Mercedes sedan in the midst of being bulletproofed. The vehicles need to be almost completely stripped down to the frame and then rebuilt to withstand bullets. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
A Mercedes sedan in the midst of being bulletproofed.

A Mercedes sedan in the midst of being bulletproofed. The vehicles need to be almost completely stripped down to the frame and then rebuilt to withstand bullets.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

Nader says they offer five levels of armor retrofits. Level 2 is designed to stop bullets from a pistol. Level 3 should block automatic weapons fire from an Uzi or other sub-machine gun. The Porsche is getting a Level 4 bulletproofing that's rated to stop rounds from AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles.

"Obviously the main thing of having a bulletproof car is when you look at the car, you can't tell it's bulletproofed. First we try to strive for no ballistic gaps," Nader says. "Then from there we try to strive to make the car look as original as possible both inside and out."

Armoring a car, particularly a large SUV, can mean adding more than a ton of steel, thick sheets of Kevlar and 3-inch-thick glass windows, he says. "Once you get to Level 4 and Level 5, we upgrade the suspension and in some cases the motor to compensate for the added weight."

Carlos Nader, Jonathan's father, is the head of Protecto Glass. He points to a cluster of opaque circular impacts on the windshield of a Honda.

"Actually they shot it four times. One, two, three, four times," he says. The marks are all directly in front of the driver.

The owner of the car had changed several thousand dollars at the Mexico City airport, which is a popular place to exchange currency. As he left, a pair of thieves followed him. Once he was stuck in traffic, they approached his car with guns drawn, Carlos Nader explains.

"One guy in front of the car. One guy at side window. They ask for the money. He said, 'I don't have any money.' And they start shooting at him. No bullet went through, as you can see," Nader says.

There have been other recent incidents in which bulletproofing saved lives. In April, gunmen ambushed the state security secretary for Michoacan, Minerva Bautista Gomez. The attackers fired 2,700 rounds into her convoy and ripped apart her Jeep Grand Cherokee, according to investigators. But the car had been bulletproofed and Bautista Gomez survived, though two of her bodyguards and two passing motorists were killed in the ambush.

Some clients want James Bond-type gadgets installed that will spray oil on the road or shoot out flames, says Jonathan Nader. While the company can't do that, Protecto Glass does offer a spray-deterrent system.

"Where if you're getting assaulted you can push a button and 3-feet radius around the car it releases tear gas," he says. The gas shoots out from the wheel wells and surrounds the car in a noxious cloud.

Some of Protecto's clients seek something decidedly less flashy than a bulletproof Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz. One of the vehicles the Naders just finished armoring is a brownish-burgundy, four-door 1992 Grand Marquis Mercury. It's been armored to Level 4.

Nader says it doesn't attract attention and those who drive it feel they don't present an attractive target. The long front seat of the Mercury stretches from the driver's side to the passenger-side door and is a bit worn, but the car can withstand sustained automatic weapons fire from an AK-47.

And in the midst of Mexico's drug war, that's something some people in Mexico want right now.

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