COLOMBIA — Miguel Caballero grabs his US-made handgun and fires several bullets into his business partner's chest. John Murphy staggers and falls but is not hurt. Mr. Murphy is wearing his company's latest product, and this is no disagreement over expenses, but a dispute over an advertising shoot.
The enterprising pair have turned their country's notorious violent-death rate into a business opportunity. Using the lightweight Spectra and Kevlar fabrics, they are marketing a range of high-fashion, bulletproof clothing.
When in college, Mr. Caballero was selling leather jackets to pay for his studies; Murphy was offering a vehicle armor-plating service to Bogota's taxi drivers. "We decided to combine our expertise after a bodyguard friend complained about the bulk and discomfort of his protective clothing," recalls Caballero. "We started out with $50 each, borrowed from our parents."
Caballero and Murphy set up their company in 1992, manufacturing reinforced leather jackets for Bogota's young guns. Despite a few technical flaws, the pair managed to perfect their designs in time for the Colombian Leather Fair four years ago. Sales flourished, and within two years they expanded their product line to tuxedos, business suits, and even ball gowns and cocktail dresses. They now employ 24 people and turn over $500,000 a year in profits.
Their clothing is offered with varying degrees of ballistic resistance. For $500, one can purchase a "Level 1" jacket which will deflect small-arms fire. An extra $300 buys high-caliber, "Level 4" protection against a 9mm Uzi. This year Caballero plans to launch a range of childrens' wear and to offer garments tailor-made to order. He also hopes to employ an in-house designer to create seasonal collections from summer shirts to overcoats.
"So far the business has sold itself," says Caballero. "We are so busy keeping up with demand that we have had little time to consider marketing and advertising."
Caballero's clients at home include six Colombian government departments, several foreign multinationals, and a long list of high-profile individuals in entertainment and politics. But demand is not restricted to Colombia - exports now account for a significant chunk of his income.
"I think people abroad are reassured that if our bulletproof clothing is good enough for Colombia, then it must be good enough for them too," he says. And helping the rich and famous stay alive in Latin America involves a startling array of products and services.
At "Your Life in Your Hands," a shop located in the affluent north of Bogota, security-conscious high-fliers can avail themselves of merchandise James Bond would be proud to own - fountain pens which fire stun-darts and picture frames which double as safes.
"We have something for everyone," says proprietor Juancho Velasquez, waving his hand casually past rape alarms, bugging devices, and briefcase-cameras. Meanwhile, the elegantly dressed wife of a senior oil executive is learning to do handbrake turns and tumble out of her moving Mercedes under a hail of dummy bullets.
Evasive driving courses are just one of the services offered by Laurel Risk Management which provides security advice and equipment to BP and 32 other international companies. Irish director Bill Nixon learned his trade working for organizations menaced by the IRA, and his company controls virtually every aspect of its clients' lives. Mr. Nixon estimates that his clients spend between 5 and 10 percent of their income security. "When it comes to security, Latin America is where the market is," he observes with a wry grin. "And the problems are not going away."