Manila sees rise in bulletproof cars

Increasing attacks on politicans are forcing them to use armoured cars to protect them and their families from political rivals.

A worker welds metal plate at the rear of the Sport Utility Vehicle at Exo Armoring in Cainta Rizal suburban Manila on January 6, 2010. Exo Armoring manufactures average of 40 bulletproof cars a year.  THENATIONAL PHOTO / JAY DIRECTO *** Local Caption ***  JAY06-PHILIPPIN-3533.jpg

MANILA // With Philippine elections less than six months away many politicians are having the armour on their cars plated to protect them and their families from assassination by political rivals. The country has a notorious reputation for political violence during elections. Late last year, 57 people, including the wife of a local politician and 30 journalists, were ambushed and murdered. The son of a political warlord in the south of the country stands accused.
Businessmen, especially Chinese, who are often targeted by gangs looking to hold them for ransom, see bulletproof cars as essential to their personal safety. Dante Manalang, the managing director of Exo Armoring, a Manila company that is one of the country's leading specialists in bulletproofing cars, said orders tend to increase by 20 per cent to 30 per cent before elections. The company, which started in 2002, was formerly the Philippine subsidiary of US armouring giant O'Gara Hess & Eisenhardt, which is responsible for armour plating the US president's limousine, known as "the Beast".
"The company pulled out of the Philippines, saying the market was too small at two to three cars a month and some of us were given the option to buy the inventory, which we did," Mr Manalang said. "Today we average 40 to 50 conversions a year. Most of the cars are brand new." Exo Armoring operates out of a nondescript building in Cainta, Rizal, in suburban Manila. Outside, a brand new SUV bearing congressional number plates was waiting its turn for conversion. Inside the factory, at least a dozen vehicles were being worked on.
The cost of bullet proofing a car to make it resistant against handguns usually costs about US$45,000 (Dh165,300) while protection against assault rifles is $70,000. "The price varies depending on what work the owner wants," Mr Manalang said. "We use a mix of imported steel plate from Sweden, Kevlar, and something which we call a doughnut, which is placed around the wheel rim before the tire is put on. If the car's tires are shot out the vehicle can still move," he said.
At least one presidential candidate is about to have a number of vehicles armour plated. The candidate declined to be interviewed. Armouring a vehicle can dramatically change its dimensions without greatly affecting its appearance. "The armour protection tends to add another 900 to 1,000 kgs to the car's weight, which we compensate by strengthening the suspension. Very few changes are made to the manufacturer's specifications," said Exo Armoring's director, Arvin Villanueva, pointing to a brand new 4.5-million-peso (Dh360,000), white SUV with just a few hundred kilometres on the clock.
"We are delivering that car on Saturday. One of the drivers asked me why we hadn't touched the car. I told him we have … it's done. He couldn't believe it. "Work on cars usually takes eight weeks if it is being protected against handguns but for assault rifles it takes a little longer, usually 12 weeks." The company was invited to take part in an international safety and security exhibition in Abu Dhabi in 2005 and invited to open a plant in Baghdad.
"It was tempting and the business potential looked great," Mr Villanueva said. "But the risks far outweighed the financial gains. Safety for our staff was more important. Besides, business here in the Philippines is steady and we are exploring new markets in Indonesia and Malaysia." Mr Villanueva said he and his employees rarely meet the owners of the cars they work on. "A driver or member of the individual's staff usually comes in and asks us to 'Take care of it'. They pay us and we do the work. You will find that even within families they keep quiet about whether they have had their car bulletproofed. It's one of those things," he said.
"In 2007, one of our cars, which was owned by a money changer, was attacked in broad daylight in Manila by [men on] two motorbikes. Each bike had a man on the back with a short-version M16 assault rifle. They put 42 bullets into the car but not one of them managed to penetrate the steel or windshield." Pointing to one car, which was having the windscreen replaced, he said: "A normal windscreen weighs about 10 to 15 kilograms. If you want your windscreen to protect you against shots from a handgun by the time we have finished with it, it will weigh 75 kilograms. If you want to be protected from an M15 it will weigh 150 kilograms. It's all in the science."