`Made In Colombia' Bulletproof Clothes A Big Hit

BOGOTA, Colombia - John Murphy remembers the first time his friend and business partner, Miguel Caballero, shot him in the stomach.

"The bruise was like this," said Murphy, making a circle with his fingers the size of a coffee cup. "I couldn't walk for three days. And that's when we decided that we had to improve our product."

Murphy and Caballero, both 28, make and sell made-to-order bulletproof clothing, ranging from leather trench coats and bomber jackets to blue blazers that would be at home in any restaurant.

If confronted with a skeptical client, Caballero will pull out a .38-caliber revolver and shoot his buddy in the stomach at point-blank range.

"I think he's shot a gun about 20 times in his life," Murphy groaned, "and 12 of them have been at me."

Caballero said there is a good reason why he's always the shooter: "Murphy's the one who makes the armor."

In the country with the world's highest murder rate security has become big business.

After years of fighting leftist guerrillas and defending businessmen and politicians from drug traffickers, Colombian security specialists have become experts in their field. There are an estimated 50 security firms in the country providing everything from bodyguards to driving courses.

Colombia, a country of 36 million people, is thought to have more armored cars than any other nation in the world.

And for a bulletproof garment, a "Made in Colombia" label is like a seal of approval, Caballero said.

"This is what we are trying to exploit, that a product derived from this violence must be good," he said.

The company started in 1993, soon after Murphy and Caballero graduated from a business program at the University of the Andes in Bogota. Murphy, whose uncle's company makes armors cars, joined forces with Caballero, who had been interested in clothing.

They soon developed a line of jackets that they say can stop bullets from almost any handgun. The jackets cost from $490 to $790, depending on the garment's style and level of protection.

Sales have grown to $320,000 last year from $60,000 in 1993. Murphy has left the partnership but continues to make and sell the bulletproof shields for Caballero.

Early versions were made with Kevlar, a lightweight bulletproof fabric that is comfortable but does little to mitigate the shock of a bullet, as Murphy can painfully attest.

"It'll stop the bullet, but you'll have a bruise and maybe a couple broken ribs," he said, grimacing.

A year of experiments produced a more effective shield: A half-inch-thick sandwich of Kevlar and another space-age product called Spectra, which is stiffer but is still light and flexible enough to be sewn into a jacket's lining.

"Now getting shot is very easy," Murphy said. "I've been shot 15 times. It's like a punch, like you're hit with the end of a bat."

Bulletproof vests already were common when Caballero and Murphy started their business, but people were loath to wear them. Usually worn under clothing, the vests were constricting and unbearably warm.

"So we offered something more wearable," Murphy said. "Most of these people ride in armored cars, so they need something to wear when they step out of the car and walk into their home or restaurant."

The company's clients include emerald dealers, businessmen and politicians, including a former president of Guatemala, Caballero said.

Nearly 70 percent of the company's business is local, fueled by the security concerns of Colombian businessmen and politicians and by orders from police departments and the army, which buy the more traditional bulletproof vests. And business goes up after a high-profile attack, such as the slaying of a prominent politician last November.

In terms of exports, most of the bulletproof jackets go to Moscow and Mexico, a country "that potentially, is really going to need these products," Caballero said. "The third country is the United States."