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Armoring Trends in Latin America

In Latin America, the middle class has been growing, and that growth has not gone unnoticed by criminals in the region. As more people make more money, they become targets of crimes such as car hijackings, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who studies crime trends in the region.

For example, “express kidnappings,” where victims are kidnapped or carjacked and taken to ATMs to withdraw money, are more common in Latin America than any other part of the world. In addition, NGOs like Fundacion Pais Libre, which monitors kidnappings in Colombia, say kidnappings for ransom have increased in recent years. The story is the same in Mexico; last year, the Mexican government said kidnappings had increased more than 300 percent since 2005.

In response, the targeted members of the population have begun to seek solutions, such as armored cars, and security companies are responding to the need. Armor sales are now 70 percent private and only 30 percent government, says Mauricio Natale, Regional Manager of Mexico-based TPS armoring. The private sector side of the market “has grown in the last five years at the rate of 20 percent annually,” Natale says.

Armoring is not new, especially in Brazil, which has the most developed armoring industry in Latin America and leads the region in innovative technology. Sales doubled from 2004 to 2009, according to the latest data from the Brazilian Armoring Association. What is new is the extent to which it is being both marketed to and sought by average citizens rather than governments or businesses.

One example is the Armura armor kit being marketed in Brazil by DuPont, which makes it possible to outfit a car with Kevlar door panels and bulletproof glass for about $12,000. DuPont’s product, which fits cars like the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla, was made for Brazil’s working class.

The kit adds about 30 percent to the price of a new car, but it is about half the cost of a traditional armoring job. “[W]e saw that there was a need for additional affordable protection, and we were able to provide that,” says DuPont spokeswoman Catherine Andriadis.

Affordability is also a function of the level of the threat faced by those in Brazil. Car armor providers can make more affordable kits available in Brazil because customers aren’t generally trying to protect against IEDs or attempted drug-related violence and assassinations, which would require heavy duty armor. In Brazil people are more worried about bandits and hijackings so the market centers on creating lighter, more affordable forms of armor, say providers.

By contrast, people in Central American countries order higher levels of armoring, companies say. From Panama northward, orders reflect the need for greater protection from high powered rifles, often used by the drug cartels, for example.

Demand for armoring is especially strong in Mexico in part because people can’t rely on the police. “Go to Mexico City, and there are six or seven major armoring companies in the suburbs that tailor to Mexico City alone,” according to president of Herndon, Virginia-based Alpine Armoring Fred Khoroushi. Alpine Armoring has seen “unique growth” of passenger-type armored vehicles in Central American countries in recent years. Alpine’s sales to Mexico are expected to exceed 100 vehicles this year. “Even Moscow…doesn’t have this kind of industry,” he says.

Other countries are also seeing an interest in armoring. Because Mexico’s southern border is a major drug-transit route, growing violence there has led to increased armored vehicle orders to Guatemala as well. Armoring experts also cite Venezuela as a country where there is considerable growth in demand for armored vehicles because of the increasing level of violence in the country—Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and it has seen a rise in violent kidnappings.

“In Venezuela the situation is getting worse because criminals are starting to use [high-powered] rifles. Venezuelan armoring companies do not have much experience with this threat,” says John Murphy, managing director for international sales at ISBI Armoring. ISBI Armoring has been selling Venezuelan clients ceramic kits to install inside vehicle doors to help counter these higher-level emerging threats.

In developing armored solutions for different markets, companies have to consider more than the type of possible violence. They also have to consider the terrain. For example, one of the biggest challenges for armoring companies in mountainous Colombia is providing adequate protection without adding a lot of weight. Adding 500 pounds of armor won’t change how a vehicle handles. “But when you go up to rifle protection, then we’re adding 2,000 pounds. Handling is a lot harder, and the center of gravity goes upwards, so people have to drive a lot slower. Going downhill in such a heavy car, you have to be careful,” according to Murphy.

Sometimes the armoring isn’t about the threat at all, however. Around 20 percent of Alpine Armoring’s orders are what Khoroushi calls “prestige orders.” These are orders from people who “want to show that they are important enough to be protected and rich enough to spend the money on an armored vehicle."

With that market in mind, Bentley revealed in August that it is considering launching a line of armored vehicles for customers in Latin America, Russia, and the Middle East. An unarmored Bentley SUV costs around $140,000. Bentley's finance chief Jan-Henrik Lafrentz told The Guardian in August that the demand for these pricey vehicles is in Latin America in particular.

However, the crime rate and the general level of threat perceived throughout the society do factor in to the decision to buy car armor. This is reflected in the fact that not all of Latin America fits this armoring profile.

“Very little armoring goes on in Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, because they are a lot safer than, say, Colombia,” says Murphy. And even in Colombia, Murphy says that most orders are for small arms armor, and experts say the demand is declining because most of the people in Colombia who can afford armored vehicles have purchased them already.