Colombian company exports bulletproof backpacks to U.S.

Juan Forero/The Washington Post - Workers sew to fill orders for Miguel Caballeros’s business, making bulletproof clothing for the fashion conscious, in Bogota, Colombia on May 25.

BOGOTA, Colombia — Miguel Caballero’s business, making bullet­proof clothing for the fashion-­conscious, has grown over the years as presidents, police chiefs and oil sheiks from as far away as Qatar have become loyal customers.

Dubbed “the Armani of bulletproof clothing,” the Bogota-based company that bears his name sells protective trench coats, sweaters, leather jackets and blazers, along with more standard fare — bulletproof vests. Now Caballero, ever on the lookout for new customers, is zeroing in on an untapped market: U.S. schoolchildren.

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With his new line, MC Kids, Caballero offers backpacks and jackets for children, including some in girlie pink and stamped with fluttering fairies, that are outfitted with bulletproof plating to stop the slugs from an Israeli-made Uzi. Caballero, 46, said that in his 20 years of business, there had never been a demand in Colombia for bulletproof children’s clothing.

But the United States is a different market: a country where there are about as many firearms as people, Caballero pointed out, and where mass shootings have prompted some to stock up on weapons and seek other forms of protection.

“The rest of the countries in the world try to disarm, but in the United States, they say, ‘Let’s protect ourselves,’ ” he said. “So, in that light, that’s a business opportunity.”

About 300 of the children’s backpacks, retailing for just under $300, have been sold in metropolitan Denver by Caballero’s U.S. distributor, Elite Sterling Security, said the U.S. company’s founder, A.J. Zabadne.

Elite Sterling is trying to interest school districts in that area — where memories of the 1999 Columbine school shooting and the massacre at the Aurora movie theater last year are fresh — to buy Caballero’s bright-red safety vests. Those would be bought in bulk and stored in classrooms until “a ballistics emergency,” as Caballero puts it.

“We’re pushing this for classrooms — a sort of tactical vest,” Zabadne said by phone from Denver, noting that some schools have shown interest but that no orders have been placed. “And we’re hoping that some schools will realize the utility of having this item in a classroom in case something goes wrong.”

Other companies also have begun to sell similar items, including Massachusetts-based Bullet Blocker and a company in Salt Lake City called Amendment II.

Some parents and educators, though, were flabbergasted when they heard of plans to outfit kindergartners with the kind of armor plating used by police officers and troops.

“I said, ‘What?’ ” said Hector Sanchez, principal of the Cesar A. Batalla Elementary School in Bridgeport, Conn., about 20 miles from Newtown, where a gunman killed 20 first-graders in their classrooms in December.

“This is the state of affairs when we get to the point that we would have to buy bulletproof clothing. It’s scary,” said Sanchez, adding that a national system of background checks for gun buyers would have been “a common sense” response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said it’s a “complete indictment for our gun policy that we’d put bulletproof clothing on our children instead of stopping the bullets in the first place.”

A solution or exploitation?

Here in Colombia, Caballero said he is not exploiting a tragic situation but rather offering a partial solution. He said that in the week after the shootings at Sandy Hook, he received e-mails from 40 people in the United States asking for help protecting their children.

“We’re not in the war business,” he said. “We’re in the business of defense, and in that sense we propose solutions.”

Caballero’s modern, 48,000-square-foot factory on the western outskirts of Bogota has earned a reputation for its unusual products. More than 300 employees produce bulletproof inflatable vests, riot shields and the standard vests used by the bodyguards of political figures — hot-selling products that have helped Caballero record $20 million in sales last year, compared with $2 million a decade ago when the company was more dependent on the domestic market.

But the company’s fame has come from producing garments that don’t look like armor. There are T-shirts that can stop a 9mm round, a bullet-resistant blanket, and tuxedos for those worried about an attack at a midnight ball. Tailor-made products, such as the bullet-resistant kimono bought from Caballero by Hollywood action movie figure Steven Seagal, can cost thousands of dollars. Leaders across the region, including the late Venezuelan populist Hugo Chávez, have worn Caballero’s outfits.

Caballero, a theatrical whirl of energy, likes to display the effectiveness of the material used in his clothing, a proprietary weave lighter than that used in the Kevlar vests made by DuPont. So, on Saturday, with a .38-caliber revolver in hand, he fired a shot at the bulletproof leather jacket he had a foreign reporter wear for a demonstration.

“Didn’t hurt at all, did it?” Caballero said a moment after pulling the trigger in front of his workers, who had stopped sewing to cover their ears.

Dealing with the unknown

Still, Caballero acknowledged the challenges of shielding pint-size schoolchildren from whizzing bullets.

When it came to the children’s line, Caballero decided to go with anti-bullet plates that could stop slugs from, say, a Glock semiautomatic handgun, but not a Bushmaster .223 rifle, the weapon that shooter Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook.

The bulletproof shield needed to deflect a round from a powerful rifle would be too heavy in children’s items. Caballero also said he thought lighter rounds are most often used in killings in the United States.

“Only in the exceptional cases will you see the rifle, the AK-47 or something like that, being used,” he said of school shootings.

Caballero’s marketing director, Giovanni Cordero, added that the company tries to react to trends but can never be sure what the future holds.

“Tomorrow you can outfit a school with bulletproof vests, and then they’ll come with a bazooka,” Cordero said. “We can only guide ourselves by what’s seen most often in the streets, and the risks you see are handguns, Uzis, mini-Uzis, revolvers.”

For now, the company plans to continue shipping the children’s line to Colorado. But Caballero and Zabadne, the distributor in Denver, said they see other possibilities for civilian bulletproof apparel.

“I cannot say what,” said Caballero, sounding coy about the new line that will be made public in September. “We will do a new collection for the U.S. market, only for the U.S. market.”

Others at his company, though, hinted that the plan was to market bullet-resistant T-shirts — which can be worn under a dress shirt — to schoolteachers.

 
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