Growing crime in Central America boon to private security companies

with a matching chip, which activates an alarm warning elite forces working with Xega when a client feels threatened. González, the sales manager, uses the satellite tracking device himself.

Marcano writes that the kidnapping trend is so prevalent in Mexico that people know kidnappers believe they can collect between $15,000 and $22,400 within a week. In one of the worst cases reported in Mexico City, a 5-year-old boy from a poor family also from Iztapalapa was kidnapped from a flea market. The boy’s kidnappers requested the equivalent of about $22,400 in ransom, but killed the child by injecting acid into his heart before any money could be exchanged. They feared getting caught. ”We are not living in fear, these are days of terror,” said González. ”People today feel more at risk, and they want to protect their families, their children.”

Other growing industries
In addition to chip implants, there are other industries which benefit from the combination of growing crime and the increasing perception that government agencies cannot or would not do much about it:

  • Designer bullet-proof vests. In Colombia, another crime-ridden country, Miguel Caballero produces ”designer bulletproof fashion.” His client list extend beyond Colombia, to include King Abdullah of Jordan, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, and actor Stephen Segal, among others. In 2007, his company, which operates in 16 countries, including Mexico, made $9 million. In the first seven months of 2008, he matched that figure. Caballero said sales are so strong among middle class clients that he has not ruled out selling his new collection to Mexican department stores. The protective wardrobe includes jackets with stab-proof linings, and protection from .38-caliber bullets. He also offers a polo shirt priced at $7,500 that is supposed to deflect 9 mm bullets. ”It’s not about bulletproofing with style anymore,” Caballero said at his Polanco boutique. ”Bulletproofing is becoming a style.”
  • Armored cars. Another growing industry in Mexico — but also in other central American countries and in Brazil — is car armoring. Scattered across Mexico are armored vehicle body shops. In 2008 the country had an estimated 1,700 to 1,800 new armored cars, said Ernesto Mizrahi Haiat, president of one of five armored vehicle companies. ”Everyday, more and more people want to armor their vehicles,” said Pedro Lara Cruz, a mechanic at a Mexico City body shop. ”We receive an average of three vehicles a day with requests to adapt them for Level 3 protection” — bulletproofing against light weapons, such as a .44 magnum gun. The cost is about $35,000. Other orders include pepper gas sprays for the rearview mirrors, heavy-duty Level 5 protection against AR-15 assault rifles, bulletproof crystals for windows, special sirens with police speakers, or bulletproofed tires so that vehicles can continue to drive even after being hit with bullets. Many clients opt for the Level 5 armored vehicle, which costs $85,000.
  • Plastic surgery. The disturbing movie documentary, “Manda Bala” (2007), describes the growth of a uniquely Brazilian form of plastic surgery: ear reconstruction. There are so many kidnappings in Brazil, that families who receive a call that a family member has been kidnapped can no longer know for sure whether the callers are kidnappers or cruel pranksters. Brazilian kidnappers now routinely cut off the ear of the kidnapping victim within hours of the kidnapping, and send the ear — along with a video showing the mutilation — to families before they make a call for the ransom. There have been so many ear mutilations in Brazil in the past five years that ear reconstruction has become one of the more lucrative plastic surgery practices.

Call for regulation
The boom in the protection business in the face of rising crime has led those providing the service to lobby lawmakers for more regulation. ”The government realized the importance of regulating the industry when they faced criminals that were highly protected,” said Mauricio Natale, president of the Mexican Association of Armored Vehicles. ”Somebody is obviously selling them the equipment and that’s what [the government] needs to tackle.”

Marcano writes that professional bodyguards also are seeking tougher regulations and certifications. Julio César García, president of the Mexican Society of Bodyguards, said authorities must take bodyguard training seriously and pass new laws making certification mandatory, which includes a criminal background check. García, who charges $50 per hour, keeps a busy schedule, especially on weekends with requests to escort clients to do errands or to pick up teens at clubs and parties. ”It’s our busiest time,” he said.