Miguel Caballero has shot more than 200 people including his wife, a British police officer, his lawyer (four times) and most of his employees.
As Colombia's largest maker of fashionable flak jackets and bullet-resistant clothing, Caballero habitually puts his products to the test — and so has the spiraling crime rate in the hemisphere.
“Latin America is one-of-a-kind when it comes to threats,” Caballero said, as he paced his factory carrying a .38-caliber pistol, which he uses to blast his models and volunteers.
While many of his U.S. and Israeli competitors make one-size-fits-all bullet-resistant vests, Caballero specializes in tailoring his clothes to match the threats.
Two years ago, armor-piercing, .9 mm bullets — made of copper, lead and steel — first made an appearance in Honduras. Since then they have spread to El Salvador and Costa Rica. Armored-truck thieves in Brazil and Uruguay began setting security guards on fire when they discovered that some vests were flammable. “It wasn’t the Molotov cocktails that killed the [the guards]; it was their own jackets,” Caballero said. In hot climates, perspiration also can make protective clothing heavier and compromise its effectiveness.
Identifying and rapidly adapting to the problems is what keeps the company competitive, Caballero said.
“We know we’re going to have to modify our designs about every six months,” he said. “In Latin America there are 22 different countries and each one has its own set of risks.”
As violence has surged in Latin America, Caballero’s sales have almost tripled over the last five years. The company churned out some 52,000 items of clothing worth about $20 million in 2010.
Colombia was a good laboratory for Caballero’s craft. When he started his company 19 years ago, this South American nation had the second-highest murder rate in the hemisphere — behind El Salvador — and was synonymous with gunplay and bloodshed.
Caballero, 43, said he got the idea for his company after watching his classmates’ bodyguards leave their bullet-proof vests in the car, because they were too heavy, cumbersome and ugly to be worn on a regular basis. After graduating from college with a marketing degree, Caballero sold his car to open his first factory. There, he began adapting ballistic plates used in armored vehicles to make his first line of clothing.
While Miguel Caballero Ltd. churns out police and military protective gear, it’s best known for making armored clothing that doesn’t look armored at all.
At Caballero’s 48,000-square-foot factory, seamstresses stitch together bullet-resistant leather jackets, guayaberas, polo shirts and Nehru jackets. A typical suede coat — which can atypically stop a .44 magnum — might run $3,000.
The company also makes special orders. Caballero claims to have made a bullet-resistant kimono for the “enigmatic” Hollywood tough guy Steven Segal, and bullet-resistant tunics and Bible covers for threatened priests. The company experimented with shank-proof underwear for prisoners, but the idea never caught on.
The presidents of Paraguay, El Salvador and Venezuela have been clients; former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is a repeat customer and a friend, Caballero said.
But Colombians are no longer his primary buyers. As this nation’s homicide rate has been cut in half since 1995, violence has been on the rise in neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador, and throughout Central America.
The shift has been hard on some in the industry: When Caballero started out, he said there were 35 Colombian companies that made armored cars. Now there are six. Caballero managed to stay afloat by turning his domestic enterprise into a global company that now exports 96 percent of its products.
Most of Caballero’s products are destined for Central America and Mexico, where drug-fueled violence is raging, but the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia have been profitable, too. The company had high hopes for the United States but a distribution office in Miami, opened in 2009, has seen disappointing sales.
“People in the United States don’t mind buying clothes and other things that are made in China or Japan, but when it comes to security gear, they still want it to say ‘Made in the USA,’ ” he said.
Caballero is eager to show visitors the materials lab and gun range he is building in his factory, but there is one room where cameras and recording aren’t allowed. Inside, women in lab coats cut and stack strips of black and yellow material. Unlike his competitors, Caballero does not use DuPont’s Kevlar to make his clothes. He uses a proprietary weave of polyester and nylon that has evolved over the last two decades. As a result, a jacket that used to weigh 15 pounds now weighs just 4 pounds. Some of his clothing is as flexible as stiff leather.
A natural showman, Caballero gives tours waving his pistol and hollering at employees over the clatter of sewing machines: “Have I shot you yet? What about you? Don’t lie to me or I’ll have to shoot you twice.”
Getting shot in a Miguel Caballero garment is an almost daily routine at the factory. Caballero says it’s a powerful way to prove to employees that quality matters. It’s also turned into something of a novelty: Distributors and journalists routinely ask to stand in front of Caballero’s barrel; tourists have shown up by the busload hoping to be shot.
With business booming in Central America and Mexico, Caballero is likely to keep giving tours of his factory — and gunning down guests — well into the future.
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