The Christmas gift that makes a killing – by preventing one

Miguel Caballero, the designer and owner of an eponymous line of bulletproof fashion apparel, offered to shoot the reporter to prove his point.

Zuma press/Newscom
Miguel Caballero, the Bogota-based designer and manufacturer of bulletproof fashion apparel, has been known to pull out a pistol and shoot a visitor at close range to prove a point.

Miguel Caballero, the Bogota-based designer and manufacturer of bulletproof fashion apparel, has been known to pull out a pistol and shoot a visitor at close range to prove a point. But the visitor to his eponymous clothing company – a reporter armed with a notebook and ballpoint pen – would demur.

“What is your life worth?” Mr. Caballero asks the reporter, who has come to his metal-detector-protected boutique in the upscale Polanco district of the Mexican capital to check out his new line of death-defying garments.

It is an interesting question, and not one usually answered in monetary terms. But in this case, the point seems clear: In Caballero's world, perhaps you can put a price on life.

Prices for his kill-proof clothing range from about $900 for a simple shirt providing low-level “ballistic protection” against handguns such as a 9-millimeter revolver to about $4,000 for a leather jacket with fireproof “ballistic panels” offering maximum protection against weapons up to and including the deadly Mini Uzi submachine gun.

Caballero, who launched his “bulletproof fashion” firm 18 years ago as a 24-year-old student in Bogota, says that business has never been better – a fact he attributes to good products marketed well but also to a world perceived by many to be increasingly dangerous. Last year, at the height of the global recession, he opened a brand new, 3,000-square-meter manufacturing plant in his home country of Colombia to boost production capacity by 70 percent.

Sales of everything from bulletproof polo shirts to floor-length djellabahs, he says, have been growing at a rate of 40 to 60 percent a year in some regions, particularly the Middle East – his newest market.

Caballero says that his customers have included such notables as President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela; former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe; and the American actor Steven Seagal. While he would not confirm or deny reports that President Obama wore one of his creations during a visit to Mexico in 2009, the mere rumor underscores why Mexico is one of the most important markets for Caballero’s company. Customers here include not just the rich, but also politicians and businessmen.

Mexico released figures last week showing that 30,196 people have been killed in drug-related violence over the past four years, with a record 12,456 killed from January through November, compared to 9,600 deaths in 2009 and 5,400 in 2008. The death toll from the drug war has surged each year since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office and began dispatching the military to fight organized crime.

Caballero says he admires Mr. Calderón for deciding on taking office in December 2006 to order massive assaults against Mexico’s violent drug cartels – although it could be argued that the decision has been good for the bullet-stopping business.

For example, thousands of federal police have been sent to Mr. Calderón’s home state of Michoacán with the aim of crushing La Familia – reportedly the largest producer of methamphetamine in Mexico – which has been engaged in a vicious campaign to corrupt local officials, including the police; extort legitimate businesses; and terrorize the local population.

A few days before Caballero spoke with a reporter in his Mexico City boutique, the Mexican police, in a major blow to the drug-running business, killed the leader of La Familia, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, during a two-day shoot-out with cartel gunmen in the Michoacán city of Apatzingan that also left several others dead, including five officers, an eight-month-old baby, and two adults.

Such incidents may not be directly related to the need felt by some to throw on a bulletproof jacket before venturing out. But they do not help ease the climate of insecurity prevalent throughout the country, with almost daily reports of drug-related violence.

A hotel owner in the Michoacán city of Zitacuaro, who asked not to be identified, sought to downplay the issue, saying that even as a relatively rich local businessman he is able to travel around freely without the aid of a bulletproof jacket. But he also said he had just received an e-mail message from a couple in Texas canceling their reservation. The reason: the violence in Michoacán.

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