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Amid Brazil's Soaring Crime Rates, One Business' Profits Soar

As crime continues to rise in Brazil, the country has become the world leader in refurbishing cars with armor-plating, bullet-proof glass, and other security features. The dramatic growth of the armoring industry in the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro evidence how rising crime is increasingly terrorizing Brazilians.

Workers with power-tools huddle around half a dozen stripped down vehicles inside a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Some lift thick pieces of heavy glass and fit them onto the windshields and windows of the cars. Others install armor-plated panels in the interiors of the vehicles.

The warehouse belongs to O'Gara-Hess and Eisenhardt one of the world's largest passenger-vehicle armoring companies. O'Gara is just one of the many armoring companies operating in Brazil to fill a growing demand for secure, bullet-proof cars.

Six years ago, there were only four companies offering the service. Today there are 49 a direct result of Brazil's growing crime wave.

O'Gara sales director Amaury Belmonte said business is good. "Every year we increase our sales. The market is demanding more armored cars, more armored cars," he said.

On average, about 400 cars a month in Brazil are customized with armor, bullet-proof glass, and other security features. This puts Brazil far ahead of other countries like Mexico, where 170 vehicles are bulletproofed each month, and Colombia which is embroiled in a guerrilla war - with 150.

Demand is greatest in Sao Paulo, a huge crime-ridden megalopolis of 18 million people, where the kidnapping and homicide rates have soared during the past decade. There are 60 murders per 100,000 residents in Sao Paulo far more than a city like New York, which has 7.8 per 100,000. Kidnapping has increased from 12 in 1996, to 307 last year.

In the same period, the number of cars that were bullet-proofed in Sao Paulo grew from 1,200 in 1996 to 4,200 last year.

O'Gara sales director Belmonte said demand booms every time there is a highly-publicized crime.

"We have noticed an increase in the need for armoring since we had some happenings - a mayor of a big city near Sao Paulo was killed, the director of Embratel, a big telecommunications company here in Brazil was killed, a director of Wal-Mart was killed too. All these happenings help to increase our sales and our market," Mr. Belmonte said.

These killings happened while the victims were riding in their cars. Sao Paulo crime statistics show that one out of every 10 assaults takes place against victims inside their cars.

This has led more people to get their cars bullet-proofed. The market once limited to top corporate executives and government officials is attracting members of the upper middle class.

The type of cars being bullet-proofed also has changed in response to the violence. At first, companies were customizing luxury vehicles like Mercedes Benzes and BMW's. Now, tiny inexpensive models from makers such as Volkswagen are showing up at the armoring plants as more wealthy Brazilians buy non-descript cars to call less attention to themselves.

O'Gara's Amaury Belmonte has said while business is good for his company, he laments that Brazil has become the world leader in armoring cars. "Our violence here is very, very big. More than in Colombia or Mexico. We have this bad first-place in the world, we are the champions in armoring cars. We do not want this title, but unfortunately we have this. For business it is very good, but for we who are the common people, we are exposed to this violence," he said.

At an average cost of $30,000 per car, the bullet-proofing business in Brazil is a lucrative enterprise that shows no sign of slowing down as long as the crime rate keeps going up.