Cartel Violence Helps Boost Armored Car Sales In US
Workers at Texas Armoring Corporation fortify an SUV to withstand an attack from gunmen.
Hernán Rozemberg
January 26, 2012

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Is it worth $300,000 to make your SUV battle ready? To many professionals living and working along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, the answer is yes.

For those people, Trent Kimball is their man.

Kimball is in his 40s and has grayish locks. But he looks and dresses like a vibrant 20-something who hasn’t forgotten his skateboarding days.

He’s the CEO of Texas Armoring Corporation, the company Kimball’s father, Ronald, founded in the 1970s as Executive Armoring Corporation. The younger Kimball has taken the business to much higher profit levels — from about $500,000 in revenues in the late 1990s to more than $10 million today.

What happened?

Well, basically, an increase in wealthy people looking to protect themselves at all costs from the impact of global conflicts.

Considering San Antonio is about 300 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, it may come as no surprise that business for Texas Armoring has really taken off.

“We’re looking at mainly wealthy individuals that need protection from kidnapping for ransom and sometimes assaults in the street, even planned assassinations,” Kimball said.

Photo by Hernán Rozemberg
Employees at Texas Armoring Corporation work on the interior of an SUV for a client.

Demand for turning personal cars into mobile bulletproof bunkers skyrocketed after Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared open and direct war on powerful drug cartels in 2006. Some critics may target Texas Armoring for making money off global mayhem. Kimball begs to differ.

“The way I like to think of it is not profiting on the violence or instability — actually being able to help people,” he said. “Kind of like an insurance policy.”

While Kimball’s Mexican clientele — they come from all over Mexico to his shop in San Antonio — continues to grow, he’s also starting to get more clients from an unexpected place: The U.S. side of the border.

Some of them are dual citizens in the U.S and Mexico who frequently go back and forth across the border. They tend to have homes on both sides. But others are Texans who happen to live and work on the border.

Some are presidents of maquiladoras, U.S.-owned manufacturing plants in Mexican border cities. Others are oil executives. Kimball mentioned one new client who’s in the health care industry.

Not surprisingly, given that they usually want complete anonymity, none of them were willing to be interviewed for this report.

But “Jorge”, who asked not be fully identified due to the sensitive nature of his work, said he can understand why they’d want the highest level of protection available.

“Jorge” is a police officer in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across from El Paso, Texas. He’s assigned to a special unit tasked with protecting high-profile businessmen and dignitaries in Juárez.

“They cross back and forth every day,” said “Jorge” by phone from his office in Juárez. “So we do all we can to protect them. But an armored car can truly save their lives.”

Given his clientele’s utmost necessity for confidentiality, Kimball recognized that he may not actually know who they really are. He runs criminal background checks as well as confirm with federal government sources, like the State Department. But there’s only so much he can do.

He’s confident most of them are clean. But even then, they still have a target on their backs.

“They have a fear — not necessarily they’re involved in the drug trade — but the drug trade involving them, because of where they live,” he said.

Yet at least one expert believes at least some of those clients are working for the cartels — particularly the dual nationals resettling north of the border. They could easily be working for a cartel and feel targeted by another, said Armand Peschard, a Mexico analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Photo by Hernán Rozemberg
The finished product section at Texas Armoring Corporation. Their products are designed to look like non-modified vehicles on the road.

“There are individuals who are involved in illicit business practices who have also relocated into the United States to protect themselves and their families from the increase in inter-cartel violence,” Peschard said.

Inside the 40,000-square-foot shop at Texas Armoring, Production Manager Javier Garza explained that the process starts with stripping the car.

“It’s crazy what we do,” Garza said. “We take a brand new vehicle and we completely take it all apart and make it look like it’s just being put together — which we are, except we’re installing armor.”

Garza strolled over to the finished product section. He pointed to a white SUV, a Toyota Sequoia.

“The key thing here is that it doesn’t look armored,” he said, opening the doors. “It looks original.”

It did look totally normal, inside and out. Hard to tell it’s now packed with an additional 2,000 pounds of protection.

Even the black Cadillac Escalade next to the Sequoia didn’t look like a mini-tank. But this one has got all the bells and whistles Texas Armoring offers — the $300,000 “CEO package.”

It will be the next personal vehicle for an undisclosed president of an African nation.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The headline for this story has changed from an earlier version.