I Got Shot In Colombia And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

This blog entry about the events of Saturday, December 22, 2007 was originally posted on January 10, 2008.

DAYS 28-32 (PART 5): I’d once used my press credentials to land an interview with the Maharaja of Jaipur, India, and this time, in Bogota, Colombia, they would come in handy again as I set forth to interview Miguel Caballero, a successful Colombian businessman whose eponymous clothing company has been featured in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Wired, CNN, BBC, The Discovery Channel, and (where I discovered him), the travel show Globe Trekker.  Why he receives so much attention from the press is obvious; he has made a name for himself around the world as the premier fashion designer of bulletproof clothing, so much that BusinessWeek has hailed him as “The Armani of Bulletproof Apparel.”

I’ll admit that while I found all that interesting, my ulterior motive to meet him was for the thrill and the YouTube-supported bragging rights; as I’d seen on television, any reporter who’d interviewed him was given a first-hand demonstration of his bulletproof product by being shot point-blank in the stomach with a gun — something he does to everyone of his employees to gain their trust in the product.  And so, even before I left on this trip, I had set the wheels in motion with back-and-forth emails with his public relations people, and ultimately they granted me the interview and demonstration.  I felt privileged; while Miguel Caballero is featured in a sidebar story in the Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook, his out-of-the-way factory isn’t exactly a tourist attraction — he now turns away random guidebook-toting travelers begging for him to shoot them while wearing one of this jackets.

“I want you to know that if anything happens, my travel insurance documents are in my travel safe in my bag,” I told Stephanie, the only loved-one from home I had in town, before our trip to the Miguel Caballero factory.  I figured it was better to be safe than sorry — not that an insurance company would fulfill a claim anyway, in the event of injury resulting from a voluntarily shootout.

THE PRESS TOUR was a first class operation right from the get go.  Carolina Fernandez, Caballero’s self-made PR person, had sent a car and driver to pick me and Steph from our hotel.  It was Carolina, along with USA/Canada Key Account Manager Andrés Montoya, who greeted us on a busy day — the factory was in the midst of a huge project warranting its hectic 24/7 production schedule to get it done in time.

Miguel Caballero himself was running late, so it was Carolina and Andrés who conducted the factory tour and preliminary interview about the company.  We started things off by watching the corporate video — which you can view on the company website by clicking here.  (If you’re the impatient type, you can probably skip through the somewhat lengthy animated interstitials, including the one-minute introductory animation.)  It was the fashion runway show featured in the video that made Miguel Caballero an overnight success with his haute couture bulletproof clothing line; after his first fashion show in Mexico, people were so enamored with his product that he made his projected sales for the year — in a single week.  Since then, Caballero has made a name for himself amongst the Mexican elite — his biggest market — while he still does a fair amount of business in other markets, including his home country of Colombia (although most Colombians I’d met hadn’t really recognized his name).

The tour and Q & A session revealed to me and Steph the entire inner workings of Miguel Caballero’s operation, from design to R & D to production and delivery.  His bulletproof apparel is divided into four main lines:  Classic, Silver, Gold and Platinum.  The first two, Classic and Silver, are the company’s stable cash cows, taking in 80% of total sales with big contracts to military forces and security companies — including Brinks Security, who protect many of the banks in the United States.  The Classic line was the more military-oriented of the the two.  “[There are] more pockets.  The materials are very different,” explained Andrés.  “It depends if you’re a tactical group, if you’re a regular solider, if you work in the jungle, or you are going to the desert,” he continued.  “We design according to what the client needs.” 

A step above Classic is the Silver line, which isn’t as bulky as its military counterpart.  “The keyword here is very, very simple design,” said Andrés.  “It’s more about functionality.” 

“They do look pretty stylish though,” I noted, pointing out the elegance in its minimalistic design, as I skimmed through the Silver catalog’s photos of fit male models looking debonaire in sleek, form-fitting bulletproof vests.

“What you see if what you get.  You don’t get to be a part of the design, except your corporate logo,” explained Andrés.  “It’s very simple because you just need the protection.”  The protection it provides is standard across all the lines, conforming to international bulletproofing standards, including ISO 9001 compliancy.  “What you have to understand about the different lines is that they all offer the same protection level.  No matter [if] you wear Silver or Platinum, you are protected against the same weapons.  The difference is, how light, how flexible, how soft according to the family.” 

BULLETPROOF APPAREL is just like regular apparel — the outer and inner materials are made with textiles you could be wearing right now: cotton, wool, nylon, denim, leather, suede, and even tech fabrics that stay cool in the heat and warm in the cold.  The difference with Miguel Caballero’s clothes is that the linings zip open to enclose and conceal panels of soft bulletproof material that can withstand a mini-uzi drive-by shooting.  In some cases, the panels have added anti-spike technology, preventing against knife stabbings and, in certain configurations, even needles.  Combine all that with a waterproof shell and you have one bad ass rain jacket!

“Is this kevlar based?” I asked, pulling out a lightweight bulletproof panel from the inside of a sample jacket in the conference room.  It was flexible and rolled up like a bath mat.

“No, no kevlar.  We don’t use kevlar at all,” answered Andrés.  I was told that kevlar is the old school way of repelling bullets; nowadays, flexible plastics are the way to go, bringing old bulletproof panels weighing about ten pounds down to just two and a half — a whole 75% in weight reduction.  What this miracle lightweight material is made of is a heavily guarded secret kept amongst Miguel Caballero and just two others in his staff — it’s so secret that I wasn’t allowed to shoot video or photos in the factory rooms.  “This is like the formula of Coca-Cola,” said Andrés.  “You can go anywhere and buy the ingredients, but the way you mix them… only three people know.” 

This secret technological material also works against “trauma,” the bruises and pain from the sheer impact of bullets hitting the body.  “It’s not only about stopping the bullet, it’s how you disperse the energy so you don’t get a trauma.  The energy has to be diffused to stop the trauma.  That’s very tricky to do,” continued the knowledgable Andrés.  “This is designed to work with your body to stop the bullet… When the bullet hits the panel… the fibers, they stretch… to reduce the impact.  You can have a trauma up to forty-four millimeters.”  He showed me a sample panel where different sized bullets were repelled and kept into place of impact by plastic.

THE LIGHTWEIGHT, NEAR-INVINCIBLE MATERIAL comes more prominently into play in the Gold and Platinum collections, the high-end, more fashionable lines of clothing designed by Miguel Caballero’s design department.  Touring its facility, Steph and I saw that it was an operation as if two women were in the middle of a continual bulletproof challenge on the reality show, Project Runway.  While Gold and Platinum only account for only about 20% of sales, they are the lines that put Miguel Caballero on the map, the lines that have dubbed him, “the Armored Armani.”

[Gold] is designed for people who have an active lifestyle,” explained Andrés, as he showed me the catalog.  “And they have hobbies.”

“Hobbies where bullets are flying around,” I interjected.  The room bursted into a brief chuckle.

Andrés continued, “People who like motorcycles, who like hunting, you know, just active people… [who have] horses…”

“Is that guy playing pool with a gun or something?” I said, noticing a pool player in the catalog looking quite comfortable, relaxed — and protected — in a pool hall.  More chuckles.

“This is just a casual design, so you can wear it anytime, like outdoor activities,” reiterated Andrés.  “This line is brand new, like two months ago.  We launched our newest collection in October in Paris.”

Carolina added, “Basically what this line goes for is VIPs, top executives, people who need security so they can feel comfortable doing their everyday activities.”

“We get calls from rappers all the time… from their entourage, from their managers…  Just common hip hop people who want t-shirts, who want to customize their jackets, and so we design it just for them.”  (That’s correct; Miguel Caballero’s thin armor techniques can bulletproof t-shirts.)

THE PLATINUM LINE is the company’s crowning achievement, the collection that includes sleek business attire for both men and women (the latter accounting for only about 10% of sales) costing upwards of $3000 USD.  “This one is the most expensive, because this is for VIPs… businessmen, heads of state, politicians.  For example, Steven Seagal, we designed a kimono for him,” said Andrés, thumbing through the Platinum catalog with me.  “This one, this was designed just for Steven Seagal.  We designed Platinum for the Prince of Spain, for Phillipe.  We designed tropical shirts for Hugo Chavez; he has the red one.  This is all about elegance and very, very good materials… it’s formalwear.”  Platinum’s materials, Andrés told me, is “the lightest in the world; no one makes it… You can play with it, you can fold it, you can do whatever you want with it.”

“Whatever you want,” is not far from the truth, with many clients calling in their measurements for custom jobs.  “We have this new collection in the catalog, but we also design customized clothes,” explained Carolina.  “That’s one of the differences that we have.”

“We design for VIP people all over the world,” continued Andrés.  “Many people call us with their dream jacket, crazy designs… we make it.  Three years ago we made bulletproof underwear.  We designed a bulletproof tie.  Crazy things, upon request.”

“The basic essence behind all products on those two lines are discretion, design, and comfort.  Those are the three keywords,” explained Carolina.

FINALLY, MIGUEL CABALLERO HIMSELF entered the conference room.  He had quite a presence, with all the charisma one gets for being the big boss man of his own company.  All his underlings never questioned his requests to get him anything, from coffee to his personal bulletproof blue hunter jacket to show me.  My time with him was a hectic one since he was, as expected, a very busy man.  The casual interview was often interrupted by cell phone calls, incoming and outgoing text messages, and people coming in and out of the room to give him messages or, in one case, a Christmas gift — a representative from a bank stopped by to give him a shiny new toy for Christmas: a gun.  Despite the bustling conference room, I managed to sit him down and squeeze in some questions.

ERIK/TGT:  Do you have guns at home?  Were you always surrounded by guns?

MIGUEL CABALLERO:  I have a gun in this country.  It’s a pistol, but it’s better for me here.
 
TGT:  Were you using guns for sport?  Is this sort of how this idea came about?

MC:  It’s like personal protection, for me. 

TGT:  So it started out of a need for you?

MC:  Yes, I need it.

TGT:  Just living here?

MC:  No.  I have many enemies. Many enemies.

His dramatic statement added to his badass Godfather-esque image, implying a mysterious violent history.  What it was I did not know; I just knew it wasn’t a past of being in the fashion industry since he came from a business background — he had a masters degree in marketing. 

TGT:  So you got the idea of getting into fashion, like you said, out of your own need?  Did you make all your enemies in university or something?

MC:  (shakes head, smiling):  I don’t think so.  I [had] a friend in university.  She had bodyguards, and every time they [had] bulletproof vests.

TG:  So you got the idea from them?

MC:  Yes, because all the time the bulletproof vests [were] in the car, in the trunk.  And for this reason, I think, I feel, okay, we need to get… a mixture of fashion and protection.  And now our basis basically is discretion, comfort, security and design.  And for this reason… we design… new lines, new concepts, new products.

The Armored Armani informed me about his latest business venture, without revealing too much.  Following the overwhelming success of his first boutique in a fashionable and trendy neighborhood in Mexico (it’s near a BMW dealership), he was soon expanding his retail arm into Europe, with a co-branded boutique partnered with another clothing label he could not reveal for business reasons.  He was excited about the global expansion of his product and brand.  (He even has a distributor in New Jersey.)

MC:  Here we are now, we have one hundred fifty-three people here in Colombia and thirteen in Mexico, and I’m sure when we finish, around two hundred people. 

TGT:  How big is the competition?  I know you’ve sort of cornered the market for the fashion line; there’s no competition right?

MC:  Not now, [but] we have many competitors for the [standard] bulletproof vests.

TGT : On the security side?

MC:  Yes, in all the places of the world.  But not now for bulletproof fashion.  Maybe two or three companies try to copy our products, but they have another concept.  If you remember the raincoat of the winter time, you have a type of vest in the zipper.  They tried to put the same idea in any product, in any jacket.  But that’s not our idea.  Our idea is to work with the product, and to establish the parameters through the product.  We have to develop all the time.

TGT:  The design process… What is the turnaround? 

MC:  Ten, fifteen days when we have all the information.  For example, the collection for Steven Seagal; we did that in forty-five days… three pieces.

TGT:  Are you friends with Steven Seagal?

MC:  He considers me a friend.  He considers me.  This is a very honor to say he’s my friend.  Of course, I have all the information for him, and we talk many times in the years.  But now he lives in Russia.  But yeah, it’s an honor to say he’s my friend. 

TGT:  Do you have other celebrity friends?

MC:  I don’t think so.  Clients… but not friends.  He’s my friend, but not President Uribe, or Chavez, or the president of Syria or Korea or Ecuador…

Miguel was a truly focused businessman, never getting his head in the clouds even with his constant brush with politicians.  And his business would only grow in time.  “Last year we made twenty-three thousand pieces,” boasted Miguel. “Twenty three thousand.  This year, we increased thirty percent.”

“So in terms of projected sales, you don’t really know… it’s all word of mouth…” I wondered.

Carolina interjected as her boss attended to a text message.  “Actually, his top lines are continuously growing, and they’re going to be continuously growing next year and the following years, but his Silver and Classic lines are the most stable ones.  On an individual basis, [sales increase] mainly because of media, because of word of mouth, all that stuff.  But it’s a market that’s continuously growing.”

Forecasts for an increase in bulletproof apparel sales only inferred that the world was getting more violent, or perhaps just too paranoid — in fact, Miguel admitted that sales and public interest usually spike right after news of a shooting, and even during the post-hysteria of Nine Eleven.  I posed the question, “Do you think that exporting this bulletproof clothing is promoting violence?”

The Armored Armani looked at me with his serious business face.  “I am not in the business of the war.  I am in the business of defense.  I don’t sell guns.”

“I know, but you’ve sort of made it trendy.”

Carolina interjected again.  “It’s actually just a response to the problem.  The problem was just there; he just offered a solution.”

WITH THAT SAID, I happily embraced “the problem” and welcomed the introductions of guns into my life (picture above), at least for the day.  Miguel had his staff prep the conference room for the inevitable demonstration of his product in a safe, controlled environment.  (It would have been done in the in-house firing range, but the room was temporary full of products awaiting shipment.) 

With ear protectors on his head and a .38 caliber Colombian-made revolver in hand, Miguel first shot one of the messengers(?) who had stopped by for a visit — he wore a fashionable bulletproof leather jacket from the Gold collection.  Before Miguel pulled trigger, the look on the guy’s face was pure fear; he was an antsy nervous wreck until the gun fired — but it was all over in a split second.  Next, it was my turn.

After patching up the exterior hole in the brown leather jacket with a Miguel Caballero-branded sticker, the resident armsman prepped me and fitted me in.  I was given an indemnity form to sign my life away (yet again), as Steph recorded the events on my little camcorder.  “He’s signing his life away,” she stated.

Miguel Caballero himself was the only man allowed to conduct the actual handgun firing (for liability reasons), and he set my stance at the end of the conference room, instructing me to keep my hands behind my back.  He sized me up with his sharp eye and first did a test run, sans bullet.  He instructed me to inhale at the count of one — so that my stomach was sucked in to minimize trauma — and exhale at the count of three, after the gun was fired. 

“One…” he began the count.  I inhaled.  “Two…  Three.”  Click went the trigger of the unloaded firearm.  I exhaled.

With everything all set to go, Miguel donned his ear protectors and put a fresh bullet in the chamber of the .38 revolver.  The time had come; I was about to get shot by a gun for the first time in my life — voluntarily — and all I could do was start laughing at the absurdity of the situation. 

“Are you okay?” he asked me.

“I’m okay because it’s okay,” I answered, chuckling and smiling like an idiot.

“It’s adrenaline.”

“Yes.”

“He laughs a lot,” Steph had to explain.

Miguel stared at me as if to figure things out at the last minute, building up the intensity and drama.  Then he pointed the handgun towards my supposedly shielded stomach, only about three inches away from it. 

“One…” he began the count again, this time for real.  I took a deep breath and sucked in my gut.

“Two…” he continued.

BANG!

“...Three.”

Just as I’d seen in videos and demonstrations before me, he tried to fake me out with a premature hit before the third count — although when it happened, it still came off as a shock with the loud bang echoing through the room, and the light pressure on my stomach.  I’d felt nothing but a little prick on my stomach, like someone had merely flicked a finger to it.  The power of Miguel’s patented bulletproof panels had dispersed all the energy of the bullet, even at close range, leaving me completely unscathed — not even a bruise. 

“Your souvenir,” Miguel presented to me, handing me the still hot, squished pellet of lead that used to be the bullet tip of the one that struck me.  He also gave the empty shell, and I compared the two to an unused bullet.  While that was the ultimate souvenir for such an experience, Carolina handed me another: a t-shirt (unfortunately not bulletproof) with a caricature of Miguel Caballero himself, stating, “MC Club.  Official Survivor.  I was shot by Miguel Caballero.”  As with others before me, Miguel and I went through the ritual of holding it up for the camera

“This man shot me,” I told the camcorder in Steph’s hand.  “And we’re smiling about it, so it’s alright.”

(To see the video of the shooting demonstration for Erik on YouTube, click here.)

WHILE IT WASN’T her original intention to do so, Steph was fortunate to get the third, and last demonstration of the morning, despite initial arguments that she was too skinny for it, that she didn’t have enough “natural padding” around her gut to absorb any trauma.  Although flattered, she disagreed. 

And so, the armsman suited her up in a women’s bulletproof jacket, the hunter jacket — one of Miguel’s top sellers.  Because of the altered configuration, Steph’s demonstration involved a smaller gun and a smaller bullet, a .32 caliber.  “It’s my size,” she said.  “It’s a Just My Size bullet.”

“Nervous?” I asked her, speaking from behind the camcorder.  “How do you feel?”

“I already watched two people get shot, so I’m not that nervous,” she answered with her winning, optimistic smile.  She too went through the same drill: the practice three-counts, the inhalation and exhalation, and finally the live demonstration where Miguel pulled the trigger after Two, not Three.  For that brief second on impact, Steph’s smile transformed into an incredible, nervous frown, before reverting back.  Miguel handed her her souvenir lead pellet.  “Gracias,” she thanked him.

“De nada.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever thank someone for shooting me.”  She too got shot in Colombia, and all she got was a lousy t-shirt.  (Not that it was actually lousy, it just wasn’t bulletproof.)

(To see the video of the shooting demonstration for Steph on YouTube, click here.)

AFTER THE SHOOTINGS, we thanked our gracious hosts for the interview, the tour, and the once-in-a-lifetime demonstration.  Later that afternoon, Steph and I found ourselves shopping at the Unicentro shopping mall in the northern residential area, near Monica’s parents’ apartment — Carolina had recommended it as a place to go for more local, albeit vulnerable fashions.  And, just by sheer coincidence, we encountered a familiar face who recognized us and called us over to say hi:  Miguel Caballero himself, out of his bulletproof business persona, just hanging out at the mall with his little daughter.

“Hey!” I called out to him.  He smiled.  “What are you doing here?  Shopping?” I asked.

“I’m here with my daughter, buying a gift for my father.”

“You don’t get him your clothes?” I egged him with a smile.

“Ha!” he chuckled and smiled back.  “No, no.”

“Where’s your jacket?” I asked him, wondering where his signature blue hunter jacket with the thermal regulator lining was.  “I thought you had many enemies!”

He laughed and smiled in his plain clothes.  Apparently, the Armored Armani was a different man without his armor on.  He went off on a tangent about some business deal he had with the government — perhaps to rekindle his professional business badass persona we’d seen that morning — but there, he was just another random face in a crowded shopping mall during the holiday shopping season.  “I guess you’re safe here,” I told him.

“Merry Christmas,” he wished us.

“Feliz Navidad,” I reciprocated.

“Chao.”  We left him to attend to his daughter, who was eating some ice cream.

I guess no matter how tough and powerful a man like Miguel Caballero may feel behind the protection of bulletproof apparel, inside there is a regular guy, just like you and me — just perhaps with a higher sense of fashion.


FUN FACT:

When planning out this interview months in advance, I originally wanted the angle and title of the piece to be, “How My Girlfriend Shot Me.”  In my original e-mail to Miguel Caballero’s staff, I suggested that Steph be the one to pull the trigger in the demonstration, explaining that she had “some experience with handguns.”  In this statement, I bent the truth just a little bit; she had only used rifles once before at a rifle shooting range at camp.

“Since when do I have experience with handguns?” she questioned me.

“I thought you said you’d been to a rifle range.”

“Yeah, but not handguns!”

“But you’ve played Duck Hunt on the first Nintendo, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay then.”

“What if you duck and I shoot you in the face by accident?”

“That’s why I’m getting travel insurance.”

To cover our bases of honesty, we went to a handgun range in Michigan the week before I left for Central America — it was there that Steph got her real experience with handguns.  However in the end, Miguel Caballero nixed the idea of her shooting me, most likely for liability reasons.





Next entry: Christmas In Colombia

Previous entry: One Crazy Night




Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “I Got Shot In Colombia And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”

  • More Blog to come… stay tuned…

    Posted by Erik TGT  on  01/10  at  02:08 PM


  • Here I am, minding my business when Erik sends me this URL… I think OMG, not another near death experience like on the big mountain…. nope, just vintage ERT writing, humor, and interviewing.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/10  at  03:10 PM


  • That is INSANE!

    Insanely AWESOME! Somebody needs to forward Miguel’s site to all of Dick Cheney’s friends.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/10  at  04:20 PM


  • that is too cool!  =)

    Posted by samer  on  01/10  at  05:01 PM


  • So glad it was all a horrible joke, Erik.  I know you did get shot but at least you didn’t get shot shot.  Getting shot shot would have been well worse.

    Also rather strange seeing you cats on video.  I always thought your life was lived in still images.

    Anyways, glad you didn’t get shot shot and can’t wait for the rest of the blog, im off to check out you’re youtube account and possible add you as one of my 3 friends if you’re lucky.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/10  at  06:07 PM


  • That’s Crraaazzzy. This has to be the craziest thing you tried…for crying out loud volunteering to get shot…Much kudos for you and Steph.  Will be sending something to you for a little thank you for sharing your travels and adventures with us.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/10  at  08:23 PM


  • DONDINO:  Wow, thanks for the donation!  Steph and I shall toast you over the first round of drinks…

    Posted by Erik TGT  on  01/10  at  09:17 PM


  • Erik,
    Great tale…glad to hear that everything was staged, instead of how we typically think of shootings happening in Columbia. Thanks for letting the suspense build…but most of all, we’re all glad you and Steph are OK.

    Try to keep the shootings planned out…

    Dave

    Posted by Dave  on  01/11  at  02:28 AM


  • Erik… haha.  Didn´t your mama ever teach you the story of the boy who cried wolf?  You had me, though!  And that was a great story about the bulletproof clothing maker.  I´m glad it wasn´t real, unlike being held up by baby animals at knifepoint. : )

    Posted by sara  on  01/11  at  10:17 PM


  • Maddness Eric, pure maddness! Elaine shared the link with me…now I am hooked. I want to know more about your crazy adventures. I plan on checking back soon to see where you might be…
    Luego Amigo,
    ~e

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/12  at  11:39 PM


  • omg. i’ve been pretty quiet over here but this entry deserves an OMG.  you guys are nuts. (but really awesome!)

    Posted by leah  on  01/30  at  02:29 AM


  • Very nice post. Information given is nicely elaborated. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Benjamin blog  on  01/10  at  11:57 AM


  • Thanks friend. I’m love this article. Thank you.

    Posted by solar power for home  on  01/21  at  11:34 AM


  • Miguel Caballero just got featured on cnn again. But I enjoyed your reporting better =)
    http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/02/01/bogota.bulletproof.tailor/index.html?hpt=C1

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/02  at  04:15 PM


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This blog post is one of thirty-nine travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: The Central American Eviction Tour* (*with jaunt to Colombia)," which chronicled a six-week journey through Central America, with a jaunt to Bogota, Colombia.

Next entry:
Christmas In Colombia

Previous entry:
One Crazy Night




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