Friday, June 3, 2011

Drug War Means Boom Times for Armored Car Maker

Bulletproofing Factory

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — A 10-minute drive away from the Alamo, small teams on the factory floor of Texas Armoring Corporation work deliberately, turning everyday civilian vehicles into armored workhorses for the world's governments and business executives. The company is growing rapidly, and one reason is Mexico's drug war.

An adjacent building under construction will double available manufacturing space. TAC's workforce grew 30 percent last year to about 40 employees. That's enough to produce around 80 cars per year. Reality television networks have been calling, attracted to the company's tattooed workers, youngish executives and at-risk clientele.

Displayed inside the building's lobby are spiked road tacks that can be dropped out of rear compartments, armor components dented by rounds fired from AK-47 assault rifles, and a black SUV driver's side door with 2-inch thick bulletproof glass chewed up by ballistic impacts. Next, is a tire with a section cut out of it, showing hardened run-flat inserts underneath the rubber.

The armoring process is fairly straight-forward. A vehicle is sawed down to its frame with cutting torches. The frame is then wrapped in a combination of Kevlar, steel and polyethylene composite plates (industry term: "Spectra Shield") before the original fabrics and interior panels are restored. Eventually, at a price of around $80,000 or more — not including cost of the vehicle, and without options like smoke shields and digital video recorder systems — a client should be protected from rounds sized up to 7.62 millimeters.

Company president Trent Kimball boasts about his clients — heads of state, governments, multinational corporations and business executives — in a general way. But he won't name any; these guys like their privacy. International sales must clear U.S. Department of Commerce export controls, which are supposed to keep known drug traffickers and terrorist organizations from buying the armored rides.

Kimball says he's confident the company has never inadvertently sold to a drug lord. Traffickers avoid companies based in the United States, he said, opting instead for in-house armorers. In fact, Mexico's own armored-car industry is now worth $80 million a year and is growing at a brisk 10 percent. Mexican cartels have even begun building their own tanks.
Armoring is happening across the board, and Kimball says his clients — 20 percent either live or work in Mexico — are reacting to a sharp increase in crime and the threat of kidnapping.

An alarming surge in the practice over the past decade has surfaced in Latin America, the long-running leader in kidnapping. In Mexico, a record number of kidnappings happened last year. The country is now the riskiest country in Latin America for kidnapping and world leader in "express kidnapping" – quick, violent attacks that can last just a few hours and involve victims selected seemingly at random.

Kimball admits some of his clients may be a bit too paranoid. But others have to be, he says. Recently, a client in the Mexican city of Monterrey was nearly killed in an attack. The car saved his life. "Monterrey is a hotbed. There are very wealthy people who live in Monterrey," Kimball says. "It's an industrial city, so one of our clients …" he pauses. "We don’t know what the intentions of the people who attacked his vehicle were, but they did."

The spread of crime has spurred a partial restructuring away from high-end luxury vehicles to more compact and mid-sized, low-profile models. In Mexico's northern badlands and border cities, violence is now so widespread residents have depopulated city districts and abandoned entire towns to drug gangs. SUVs and trucks, particularly luxurious and heavy-duty versions, are favored by gangsters and have become frequent targets for carjackings.

An inspection of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security last year raised concerns about attacks in Colombia on conspicuous "embassy-owned, white Chevrolet Suburban armored vehicles." Clearly American, the vehicles made tempting prey.
In February, Zetas gunmen ambushed an SUV containing two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on a highway between San Luis Potosí and Matamoros. One agent was killed and the other wounded. The Zetas cell leader was later arrested and claimed the agents were mistaken for rival gang members.

In Juárez two weeks ago, three people traveling in a Hummer H3 with New Mexico plates were killed.

"We are definitely seeing a shift," Kimball said. "Not necessarily by politicians or State Department employees, but our clients — which are usually normal businessmen — understand if you drive a long Mercedes-Benz, you make yourself a target."

Let there be no mistake: most of TAC's business is in SUVs and luxury cars. On the floor of the company's factory, however, at least one small sedan could be seen nearly finished with Mexican license plates attached. Other low-profile models could be seen lined up elsewhere. The company has also recently armored relatively low-cost Nissan Maximas, Toyota Camrys and Chevrolet TrailBlazers. Kimball said he recently shipped three unassuming Mitsubishi Monteros.

"2008 models, not new ones," he said. "That's a smart guy."

The Bulletproofing Factory

Vehicles are armored at Texas Armoring Corporation in San Antonio, Texas. The company now bulletproofs about 80 vehicles a year and is doubling its manufacturing space.
Image: Texas Armoring Corporation

Armored SUVs

Armored SUVs

SUVs like these Chevrolet Suburbans are common in the armor industry, but company president Trent Kimball says he is seeing a shift toward smaller vehicles.
Image: Texas Armoring Corporation

Kevlar VW

The Kevlar VW

Civilian armored cars are modified, but look discreet. This Volkswagen Passat has Kevlar, steel and polyethylene composite plates welded to the frame and inside the door panels.
Image: Texas Armoring Corporation

Defense on the Down-Low

Defense on the Down-Low

Mexico's drug war has spiked kidnapping rates. As a result, demand is growing for more typical vehicles like this armored Chevrolet TrailBlazer.
Image: Texas Armoring Corporation

Cameras? Those Are Extra

Cameras? Those Are Extra

Armoring can cost more than $80,000 — not including the vehicle. Additional features, like this digital video recorder linked to four external cameras, cost extra.
Image: Texas Armoring Corporation

Keep Rolling with Armored Wheels

Keep Rolling with Armored Wheels

Armored wheels are standard. This one supports a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Image: Texas Armoring Corporation

Steel-Reinforced Batteries

Steel-Reinforced Batteries, Still Going and Going

Battery compartments are wrapped in steel. This engine belongs to a Chevrolet Suburban. Angular, steel radiator deflectors are additional options.
Image: Texas Armoring Corporation

Smoke or Spikes

Options: Smoke or Spikes

Customers can choose to have a smoke-screen apparatus installed. And those in the market for armored cars can opt to purchase a dispenser that dumps spiked road tacks out of a vehicle's rear end.
Image: Texas Armoring Corporation

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