Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Buried Nugget: Violent Crime in Colombia is Way Down

I am in an office with a man pointing a gun at me. He looks me in the eye and tells me: ‘I will count to three and then I will shoot you. One, two, three.’ Then he pulls the trigger

The Times
May 26, 2007
Catherine Philp in Bogotá

Journalists often say that no story is worth taking a bullet for. But today instead of an Iraq street or Afghan village, I am in the office of Miguel Caballero, the bulletproof tailor of Bogotá – and he wants to show me exactly what his products do.

“Anyone in the world can make you a bulletproof vest,” he tells me as he helps me into a beige, quilted, hunting jacket, complete with superlight inserts capable of stopping a 9 mm bullet. “But we are the only ones that make high-security fashion.”

It is perhaps not surprising that such a hybrid should have evolved in Colombia, with its historically sky-high murder and kidnapping rates and love of finely cut cloth.

Mr Caballero was a business management student at the University of Bogotá when the idea of Armani-style armour first came to him, courtesy of some wealthy friends.

“They had their own bodyguards and bulletproof vests but they would always leave them in the boot of their car because they were so heavy and ugly,” he says. “They would end up just wearing their leather jackets instead.”

So with $10, some samples of ultra-strong fibres and his own leather jacket, he started to experiment.

Fourteen years after the prototype, Mr Caballero’s company has grown into a multinational empire with a turnover of more than $5 million (£2.5 million), pumping out everything from prêt-à-porter casual wear to couture evening wear for presidents and VIPs.

His client list includes Alvaro Uribe, President of Colombia, survivor of four assassination attempts and now the owner of a whole wardrobe of made-to-measure Caballero, from formal suit jackets to white guayaberas – lightweight, tropical shirts. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s flamboyant left-wing President, has the same shirt in wine red. “It’s the only thing the two have in common,” Mr Caballero jokes.

Every one of the candidates in last year’s Mexican presidential elections had a fitting at Caballero’s and well-cut trench coats, denim jackets and buttery-soft suede bombers can be seen on dignitaries from Buenos Aires to Miami. [...]

Mr Caballero says his clients can trust their jackets with their lives because of the rigorous testing he conducts – with his employees. Everyone who works for him has been shot by him in one of the more unusual corporate rites of passage. His beleaguered lawyer has been shot four times.

The earliest tests were not an unqualified success, he admits. He shot his (former) partner with a .38, causing him severe bruising. “For 15 days he couldn’t smile, he couldn’t sit down; he couldn’t do anything,” he says ruefully. But matters have improved, he assures me as he presents the garment he would like me to try out. His choice is a quilted hunting jacket, beloved of Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia of Spain. It is a little bulky, especially on the side where he plans to shoot me, having thoughtfully added an extra layer of protection to prevent serious bruising.

It is certainly still a great deal lighter – and more stylish – than my press flak jacket back home. But will it be as effective?

Mr Caballero loads the .32 calibre pistol and counts down slowly from three, the barrel a mere eight inches from my abdomen. He shoots and I brace, or perhaps flinch. I hear the crack and feel an impact on the jacket but nothing at all on my skin, except the sensation of energy spreading outwards from where the bullet has hit. [...]

Exports are now the mainstay of Mr Caballero’s business, with more than 85 per cent of his goods sold abroad. The dramatic decline in homicides and kidnappings has caused the Colombian market to level out, [Emph. add.] but with Mexico and Venezuela vying for the world’s highest murder rates there is plenty of business there.

Last year he opened a boutique in Mexico City, between Tiffany and BMW. Russia and the Middle East both look promising, although Iraq has disappointed him. “It’s so bad there people just want military-style jackets, not fashion,” he said mournfully...

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