Lacking faith in police, Colombians turn to bodyguards

The number of bodyguards has more than doubled in the past four years.

Single file, the 13 recruits march to the center of the concrete staging ground. One by one, they step forward into the line of sight of a one-man firing squad.

The gunman raises his pistol, takes aim, and squeezes hard on the trigger. A deafening report reverberates off the cold, gray walls as the bullet finds its mark.

Bullseye.

But the young recruit is left standing. The "victim" is the exploded balloon that is left dangling from his mouth. Showing little emotion, the recruit runs back to the back of the line as the next "victim" steps forward.

"We have to be prepared psychologically," says the "gunman," instructor Pedro Nel Rincon, who has been training recruits in Bogotá for four years. "One error can cost us our lives."

This bizarre ritual is part of a rigorous five-day training course designed to teach mental toughness that the recruits will need when they face real-world combatants. But these young men are not looking to join the Army. They are on their way to becoming part of the fastest growing front in Colombia's 38-year civil war: the personal bodyguard.

As violence escalates between rebel groups and the government, and the number of civilian kidnappings continues to rise, many Colombians say that the government is not up to the task of providing protection. Instead, more people have turned to private bodyguards, not just for physical safety, but for peace of mind that is often in short supply here.

In Colombia's sagging economy, bodyguarding is one of the few good economic opportunities for the hordes of unemployed. The demand for guards is high, and schools such as Mr. Rincon's Vigilante Safuka have sprung up all over the country.

According to the superintendent of surveillance and private security, a division of the Defense Ministry, Colombia has a virtual army of 160,000 bodyguards and private security agents, a number that exceeds the Army's 120,000 soldiers.

That number has risen sharply in recent years. In 1999, according to the superintendent's office, there were 2,647 private bodyguards, compared with 4,809 in 2001. Through June of this year, 2,000 new bodyguards went on duty. And in Bogotá alone, some 900 companies employ security guards.

Evidence of the upward trend can be seen in the tonier sections of northern Bogotá. At lunchtime, dozens of bodyguards can be found outside Restaurante Pajares in El Chico, a popular eating spot for politicians and wealthy businessmen. And at 2:30 p.m., pickup time at Nueva Granada private school, hordes of gray-haired men in suits wait to whisk off their charges in four-wheel-drive vehicles with tinted windows.

Juan Carlos, a former Army official who manages a team of 26 bodyguards, admits he likes the thrill of his job.

"I like risky work," he says outside the trendy restaurant where his boss is eating.

Though he has a wife and kids of his own, Juan Carlos says he is prepared to give his life for his boss, whom he loves like a father.

Though he has never been hurt, Juan Carlos, who would not give his last name for safety reasons, estimates that his boss has received more than 20 threats, from attempted kidnapping to extortion, in the nine years they have been together. He says he relaxes only once his boss is safely at home.

"I love him a lot," he says. "Everything I have I would give to him."

Since his inauguration in August, President Alvaro Uribe Vélez has taken a hard-line approach against the country's three main rebel groups – the United Self-Defense Forces, the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and smaller National Liberation Army.

Recently, the government has gone on the offensive. Last week, Mr. Uribe sent troops into the city of Medellin's most dangerous neighborhood, a lawless guerilla stronghold. Several days of fighting left some 18 dead and dozens injured. Police rescued two kidnapping victims and arrested some 100 suspected rebels.

But the aggressive military efforts are unlikely to quash the demand for private security.

In four years, Vigilantes Safuka has trained 10,500 guards. Students train for five days at a cost of $60 before receiving certification. Basic training includes courses in ethics, antiterrorism, and hands-on practice on a firing range.

After his balloon popping exercise, Rincon tests his students' duck-and-roll skills by hurling clusters of metal rods at them.

Most bodyguards are former police or military officers, ex-combatants from Colombia's civil war searching for a new line of work. Many of them are from humble backgrounds and are looking for a respected profession. In Rincon's classroom, he stresses the opportunity to move up in the world.

Former auto mechanic Jorge Alberto Bedoya says the business of security "has always called him."

"It's in your blood," he says. "It's something that you love, something that you feel."

Like most of the other recruits, Mr. Bedoya is inured to Colombia's violence and isn't scared about the risks of his new job. "It is a risky profession, but this is a dangerous country," he says.

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