ECATEPEC, MEXICO - As the country is driven deeper into despair, one industry coasts to success.
That is the weird reality of the Mexican car-armoring business, and its top executives, like Esteban Hernandez, have spent time pondering the paradox.
The Colombia native is the general manager of a Mexico City bulletproofing company called Auto Safe, and his conscience is untroubled. The way he sees it, he and his competitors are providing a vital service in a time of national turmoil.
Strolling past a couple of bulletproofed Porsche Cayennes at an armoring plant in this suburb, Hernandez compared his work to that of a prescription-drug or medical-supply company. "Our job," he said, "is to make sure that people don't die."
Mexico is hardly the land of happy motoring these days, given all the disappearances and drug-cartel shootouts and the record number of kidnappings reported in 2011.
Increasingly, those who can afford to are having their European luxury sedans and leviathan American SUVs transformed into rolling safe rooms. Mexico is home to more than 50 armoring companies that bulletproof about 3,000 cars per year, taking in roughly $135 million for the work.
The industry has been growing 8 to 20 percent a year for the last five years, a period in which Mexico has struggled to contain its explosion of organized crime, said Fernando Echeverri, president of the Mexican Association of Automobile Armorers.
Hernandez noted that Colombia, during the height of its cocaine-fueled violence in the 1980s, pioneered the car-armoring business in Latin America. Mexico's industry took off a decade later, with help from a number of Colombian executives such as Hernandez.
Echeverri said the Mexican companies support about 5,000 jobs, despite competition from Texas and elsewhere.
The executives described the various levels of protection they offer: At the bargain end, the "anti-assault" package promises protection from the likes of Uzis and .44 Magnums. The price, after the cost of the car, is about $35,000, roughly five times what the average Mexican worker earns in a year.
At the top end, somewhere north of $100,000, clients get "anti-terrorism"-level protection, including windows thicker than a family Bible.