Sales of such vehicles have rocketed, catapulting Brazil – a poor country without war or terrorism – to the top of the world market.
The cause is surging crime rates: there were almost 6000 murders in Rio state alone last year and numbers are rising.
At the annual international car fair in Sao Paulo – which has a murder rate almost identical to Rio – the number of armoured car manufacturers who took part reached 15 last year and is expected to double this year.
The company that makes armoured cars to protect the Pope and US SWAT teams has found a buoyant market among the middle classes.
“Right now, we have a boom in this market owing to street violence in Brazil, so our company is producing 1500 vehicles per year,” says Alexandre Ballesta of Brazil’s leading manufacturer, Tangum Inbra-Blindados.
“At the beginning, our main customers were the jet set or politicians, but today in Brazil almost everybody has the chance of buying one”
“At the beginning, our main customers were the jet set or politicians, but today in Brazil almost everybody has the chance of buying one.”
“Talking about armoured cars is difficult because it’s always very secret,” he says. “Nobody has to register anything but I believe that Brazil today is the biggest market in the world.”
“Our target is to get Latin American countries who have problems,” he adds.
Mark Burton, CEO of the world leader in armoured car manufacturing, the International Armoring Corporation, is excited about his new business opportunities.
“It’s been absolutely incredible, we couldn’t have even imagined. Five years ago, it was a relatively small market and now, just in Sao Paulo alone, there’s 500-600 vehicles sold a month for this market,” he says.
His company produces one vehicle, the Smartruck, replete with James Bond-style grenade-launchers, teargas and laser cannon. His other armoured cars, however, are a little less spectacular.
Cars are produced to an US-set international standard. The top level, Level Six, is designed to withstand “almost anything you can bring to your shoulder”, says Burton.
Most cars produced in Brazil are Level Three, protected against high-powered handguns. Some can defeat 7.62 calibre bullets shot from rifles popular with members of drug gangs.
Not like Batman
“This car has been shot over 250 times,” Burton explains, referring to a demonstration model. “The bullets don’t bounce off, the material absorbs the energy of the rounds … it’s not like Batman. The passenger compartment has been completely protected.”
“Remember, these vehicles are not tanks. They are vehicles for defensive purposes. They are to provide a safe haven from an initial attack,” he says.
Vehicles offer protection against
“This car is protected against high-powered handguns including the .357 magnum, .44 magnum and 9mm,” Burton explains.
“This is the requirement to certify the work we do. It’s been protected in the roof, floor, pillar, post, all the glass areas, the doors. It’s as if you are in a cocoon inside but you don’t notice it’s an armoured vehicle.”
Burton says the majority of these cars go to business executives and individuals who are worried about their personal security from poverty-driven violence.
Debt-ladened Brazil has one of the worst health disparities in the world, on a par with Nigeria. In the country’s vast cities, the middle classes live in fenced-in communities next door to sprawling favelas, or slums.
Gilmar Mauro, one of the leaders of the landless peasant movement, Movimento Sem Terra, says this grotesque inequality needs to change and criticises the middle classes for trying to shield themselves from their surroundings.
“The middle class have got a stupid approach towards dealing with this by creating domestic prisons; a prison in your own house, your kids can’t leave the house because if they go outside they will be assaulted,” he says.
“The middle class have got a stupid approach towards dealing with this”
Ballesta agrees the fear of social violence has transformed middle class behaviour.
“We have been learning how to behave in the streets, you have to be alert at all times,” he says,”and with armoured car you start to be a little bit more easy and that is what we are selling.”
And though the reasons are regrettable, the desire for greater protection has been good for the security business, says Ballesta.
“Everybody here has security systems in your house, security systems in your company and we are offering security from your house to your business and vice versa,” he says.