- Associated Press - Monday, December 5, 2011

CAGUA, Venezuela — Ever since a gunman tried to rob his father, Venezuelan businessman Dumas Rojas has insisted on driving cars with armored windows strong enough to withstand the bullets of a .44 Magnum.

Mr. Rojas also decided to have the same Level 3 armor installed on the Jeep his wife drives.

“As far as I’m concerned, personal security right now is priceless,” said Mr. Rojas, 33. While it’s sad that such measures are necessary, he said, “in any area, you’re exposed to being attacked, robbed, kidnapped.”

In Latin American countries from Brazil to Mexico, the affluent are increasingly shielding their cars as a precaution against violence that has thrived because of weak police forces, easy access to guns, and young, unemployed men on the lookout for lucrative targets.

Whether in Sao Paulo or northern Mexico, the wealthy and upper-middle class have grown accustomed to feeling vulnerable. In some places, kidnappings have risen. In others, gunmen have stormed entire apartment buildings in mass robberies.

Venezuelans are coping with increasing numbers of abductions, robberies and killings, and the vast majority of crimes go unsolved and unpunished.

Polls consistently show that crime is the top worry for Venezuelans, and a recent U.N. study found that the country has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Fears have been exacerbated by high-profile assaults such as the recent abduction of Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, who was freed by police two days after being seized at gunpoint.

Trying to improve their odds, Venezuela’s wealthy have poured money into security.

The number of bodyguards has grown an estimated 70 percent in the past five years, and it’s common to see the children of wealthy businesspeople shuttled to school by armed chauffeurs.

The nation of 29 million people has become one of the fastest-growing markets for armoring cars, a procedure that often costs more than $20,000. Shop owners say many clients have survived kidnappings or robberies, or have relatives or close friends who have.

Inside Francisco Belisario’s shop, power tools hum as Jeeps and Chevrolets are refitted with Kevlar, steel and bullet-resistant windows.

“Orders for armoring vehicles have been growing 100 percent annually,” said Mr. Belisario, who estimates that the number of shops dedicated to the business in Venezuela has increased in the past five years from fewer than 10 to more than 40.

Nearly three years ago, Mr. Belisario opened Blindacenter, the first armoring shop in Cagua, a town with narrow, colonial-era streets about 45 miles southwest of Caracas, the capital.

Today, his garage is run by Colombian workers and packed with several Jeep Cherokees, a Chevrolet Silverado, a Range Rover and a Mini Cooper. And there is a waiting list.

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