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Brazil sees rise in bulletproof cars

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

Aluizio Coelho recalls in vivid detail the incident which persuaded him to buy a bulletproof car.

He was driving with his wife into the centre of Sao Paulo when a motorbike pulled up alongside his vehicle.

Armoured cars on sale in Sao Paulo
Brazil has an estimated 50,000 bulletproof vehicles on its roads
"Two guys were on the motorbike, and the guy behind had a gun. He asked for everything we had, and of course we said to him we will give you everything.

"But the problem was that the guy had such a nervous attitude, and it looked like he was using drugs. The risk of the situation was not only if we wanted to give away whatever we had, but if the guy was sure in his mind that he didn't need to shoot us.

"That was really what brought me to have a bulletproof car."

Aluizio, a former Formula 1 driver who now drives stock cars, bought his bulletproof vehicle second hand, and says it has brought peace of mind for him and his family.

"You have of course to keep in mind not to go where you shouldn't be going, but in a normal situation you are always feeling safer. It brings you comfort."

Growing market

A few miles outside Sao Paulo, at a factory producing bulletproof windows, you have to wear headphones to block out the deafening sound of gunshots.

Day after day, in carefully controlled tests, bullets are fired at the glass produced here to ensure that it is up to the required standard.

There is a continuing sense of insecurity, this urban violence in big cities. So once you are using a bulletproof car, you are much safer stopping at driving lights, driving at night
Christian Conde Antonio
President of the Brazilian Association of Bulletproofing

The impact is enormous, but in the tests we watched, the glass, just over 2cm thick, does its job. There are large and distinctive marks, but the bullets are stopped.

The tests are meant to reassure prospective buyers worried about the more sinister threats on the streets outside, such as kidnappings or armed robbery.

There are now estimated to be more than 50,000 bulletproof cars - blindados - on Brazilian roads. The business has been growing, almost without interruption, over the last decade, with an increase of around 20% per year.

Traders say a market that was once the exclusive preserve of Brazil's elite is opening up to wealthier sections of the middle class, due to easier credit arrangements and a growing second-hand market.

Urban violence

In the last six months of 2007 it is estimated that 7,500 bulletproof cars were sold in Brazil, according to research carried out by the Brazilian Association of Bulletproofing (Abrablin).

Christian Conde Antonio, the association's president, says the growth in the trade is largely because of the fear of violence and robbery in Brazil.

"There is a continuing sense of insecurity, this urban violence in big cities. So once you are using a bulletproof car, you are much safer stopping at driving lights, driving at night," he said.

Work on bullet-proof car
Reinforcing the vehicles costs time and money

He also agrees that the market is widening as a result of the changing economic situation.

"Credit in Brazil has become a little cheaper, a little easier and more accessible, and this is happening for bulletproof cars as well. Today you can... buy a car in stages and you can do this for the bulletproof protection as well."

The association says the average price of installing such protection is around $31,000 (16,000).

One issue which contributes to the risks for motorists in Sao Paulo is the sheer number of cars. There are now six million in the city, and traffic jams can be enormous.

Armed robbers have been known to use this heavy congestion to single out vulnerable motorists, and it is often crimes like this which have driven the demand for bulletproof cars.

It appears that many victims of robberies do not report these incidents to the police.

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Bullet-proof glass is tested

Decreasing crime

But the man responsible for security in Latin America's largest city insists the overall picture is improving.

In 2000, there were 36 murders per 100,000 people but statistics for 2007 show that this was down to a rate of 11.6, says Ronaldo Marzagao, Sao Paulo's State Secretary of Public Security.

Bullets are fired at reinforced glass to test its strength
Strenghtened glass is put to the test in the factory

He acknowledges that the traffic problems in the city mean crime against motorists is an issue, but here too, he says, there has been an improvement.

"From last year, we have had a decrease in car thefts and robberies of people in vehicles of 40%, up to this point," he said.

"We have a considerable decrease, but we have not yet got a corresponding feeling, principally among the middle class and people in vehicles, of a sense of security.

"Security in real terms does not always mean a sense of security among every individual. It depends on your personal experience. I believe we have concrete data that crime rates are falling."

The crime levels may be falling in Sao Paulo, but the Master Blindagens factory is producing 25 bulletproof cars a month, and it is just one of 45 companies in the city.

New vehicles are stripped down and packed with protective material and reinforced glass. The process can cost between $25,000 to $45,000 to complete.

It seems for those who have the money, it is a price they are willing to pay.




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