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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Mexico, the violence that has escalated dramatically since Mexico's president declared a war on drug cartels has created a lot of fear among regular Mexicans. Children in schools are practicing how to hit the ground and cover their heads should they get caught in a shootout. There's also insecurity among many adults there who now are looking for ways to protect themselves.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Which is an opening for companies promising security, those that provide armed guards or Kevlar business suits or home alarm systems. In today's installment of our series on Mexico's drug war, NPR's Jason Beaubien visits a shop that makes bulletproof cars.

(Soundbite of steel-cutting torch)

JASON BEAUBIEN: 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 that's been stripped down to its frame 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 is the plant engineer at Protecto Glass.

Mr. JONATHAN NADER (Protecto Glass): So this is a Porsche Cayenne. And what we're basically doing right now is we're taking out everything: the dashboard, the seats. The car gets completely stripped down to where it's barebone naked. I mean, if it's your car and you come look at it, you kind of get scared.

BEAUBIEN: They offer a range of retrofits. A Level 2 is designed to stop bullets from a pistol. A Level 3 should block automatic weapons fire from an Uzi or other submachine guns. The Porsche is getting a Level 4 bullet-proofing. That's rated to stop rounds from AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles.

Mr. J. NADER: 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 zero ballistic gaps. And then from there we try to strive to make the car look as original as possible inside and outside.

BEAUBIEN: Which can be difficult when - particularly with a large SUV - they can be adding more than a ton of steel, thick sheets of Kevlar and three-inch-thick glass windows.

Mr. J. NADER: 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.

BEAUBIEN: This is the new Mexico, where cars on the street are armored against military-style weapons.

Recently there have been several examples across Mexico, where these vehicles saved lives. In April, gunmen ambushed the State Security Secretary for Michoacan. They fired, according to investigators, 2,700 rounds into her convoy, ripping apart her Jeep Grand Cherokee. But the car had been bullet-proofed and she survived with only minor injuries.

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

Mr. CARLOS NADER (Protecto Glass): Actually, they shot it four times. One, two, three, four times.

BEAUBIEN: 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 money. As he left, a pair of thieves followed him. Once he was stuck in traffic, Nader says, they approached his car with guns drawn.

Mr. C. NADER: And one guy was in front of the car with a handgun and the other guy on the side window. And they asked for the money. And he said, look, I don't have any money and they start shooting at him. They shoot him and no bullet went through, as you can see. You know...

BEAUBIEN: Protecto Glass is one of 14 armoring companies certified by the Mexican federal government. On a normal year they bulletproof roughly 120 cars but last year they did 170. The cost of armoring ranges from $16,000 up to 75,000. Jonathan Nader says some clients want them to put in James Bond-type gadgets that will spray oil on the road or shoot out flames. He says they won't do that, but they do offer a spray deterrent system.

Mr. J. NADER: Where if you're getting assaulted you can push a button and it releases, three feet radius around the car it releases tear gas.

BEAUBIEN: The gas shoots out from the wheel wells and surrounds the car in a noxious cloud.

Over the last three and a half years, some 25,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence. An unknown number have been kidnapped. A former presidential candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, was abducted in May and is still currently being held for ransom. Last week, several newspapers ran a photo of the politician allegedly from his captors. The photo shows him naked from the waist up, blindfolded, thin and holding a magazine with a front page story about his own abduction. The Fernandez de Cevallos kidnapping shows that the gangs can grab victims even from the political elite.

Some of the Naders' clients don't want a flashy bulletproof Range Rover or Mercedes Benz. One of the vehicles the Naders just finished armoring is a frumpy Toyota mini-van. Out back they've got a brownish-burgundy four-door Mercury.

Mr. C. NADER: This is a 1992 Grand Marquis that is Level 4 armored. And it's an old car, so it's a very juicy car for the market because it looks like an old car. It has a brand-new engine and the people that drive it, they feel that they're not targets anymore.

BEAUBIEN: The long front seat of the Mercury that stretches from the driver's to the passenger-side door is a bit worn. And it might not be as comfortable as a new Ford Expedition, but this car can withstand sustained automatic weapons fire from an AK-47. And in the midst of this drug war that's what at least some people in Mexico right now want.

BEAUBIEN: Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

MONTAGNE: One sector of Mexico's economy that has been hurt badly by the drug war is tourism. Acapulco was once the playground of the Hollywood glitterati, but its international reputation has suffered a slow, drug-induced death. We take you to Acapulco tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

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