(Ramón “Tonito” Zayas)

Almost a week after organized crime schemes took the lives of five people at the Ramos Antonini residential complex in Río Piedras, the only mechanics workshops that prepares bullet-proof cars in Puerto Rico received at least two new customers willing to pay over $ 70,000 to have the highest level of protection on the road possible, thus totaling 20 the number of this type of vehicles that the company has produced so far this year and showing the turn in this industry after Hurricane María struck the island two years ago.

Until Christmas 2017, the local industry had mainly reinforced vehicles with an inner layer of ballistic steel around the corner and nearly one inch thick crystals that commonly withstand the impact of a 9- caliber weapon in a burglary attempt.

And while the latest wave of “carjackings” has driven three other island residents to spend up to $ 40,000 to protect themselves from vehicle theft, more bankers, restauranteurs, contractors, and other Puerto Rican business owners are willing to pay up to an additional $ 60,000 for immunity to assault rifle bullets and grenades fragmentation, said Carros Armados Workshop co-founder and manager Luis Ramos.

 “They are business people who drive their own cars, are all day up and down in the cars and want to protect their families from a shooting or carjacking. I also have clients who arrive here with two cars and one of them is a security car,” said Ramos, who noted that before handing the keys to the car, one of his new clients referred directly to the shooting that killed two people in broad daylight on the Rafael Martínez Nadal expressway last month.

Those who have relocated to the island due to Acts 20 and 22 on Tax Incentives also join this list. "Foreigners come second in the list. They are afraid and mostly seek to protect themselves –or their partners- from being held up and stolen," he said.

In fact, over the last 7 years, Ramos has prepared over 40 bullet-proof vehicles on the island and nearly half of them have been at the highest level since Hurricane María. “This year, I have delivered eight cars at a high level (called BR6) and now I’m working on these four that I have here,” Ramos listed as he pointed to the different corners of his workshop in Hato Rey.

Negocios identified a Toyota Land Cruiser with a second reinforced steel rear door; a 2019 Jeep Gladiator, almost completely disassembled for the mechanics to fit a second steel hood; a Ford F-350 in line for the same process; and the latest Lincoln Navigator which is the fourth on the list.

As an example, theLand Cruiser owner, which must have cost about $ 80,000, will have to pay an additional $ 70,000 to Carros Armados to reinforce it with almost 1,200 pounds of ballistic steel and crystals nearly 1.3 inches thick. Ramos called this process “peace of mind.”

"For these people, it is better to pay and be ready than not having the protection in case they need it," said Ramos. "Since I’m in this business, only one of our clients came back with a broken glass and it was due to a stone."

On the other hand, some clients arrive with the same expectations, but with less money. “They tell me, 'I want you to protect me against (assault) rifles,' but they once they see the cost (about $ 70,000) they choose the BR5 that holds up to AK-47 and costs about $ 65,000 or against small weapons that can be up to $ 38,000, which is not completely safe according to what we see on the island today, but it gives you some level of peace of mind,” explained the Operations Manager, who was trained in Caracas, Venezuela.

A complicated market

In 2012, Ramos went to Caracas, where he estimated that they prepare more than 250 bullet-proof vehicles monthly. “Just in the workshop where I worked, they prepared about 20 cars a month. In the three months, I was there, we prepared almost 75 cars in order to learn fast and leave that country as soon as we could.”

Back on the island, he prepared his first bullet-proof vehicle by mid-2013. And then two more in 2014 and four in 2015. Between 2016 and 2017, Ramos prepared 19 bulletproof vehicles and closed 2018 with an additional 12 (ten of them at the highest level of protection). So far this year, the workshop has already done ten and expects to finish four more in the next three months.

Asked by El Nuevo Día about how Puerto Rico compares to other markets with a high rate of organized crime in Latin America (such as México, Brazil, and Venezuela), Ramos said that “in Puerto Rico we have always seen a lot of violence, but people are really worried about what happened in Martínez Nadal, for example. One thing is to hear the sound of an automatic 9-millimeter and another thing is to hear the hollow sound of an AR-15 as we saw in Ramos Antonini. In Caracas that’s normal, but here it's not,” and added that he believes fewer police rounds have encouraged criminals to resolve their disputes in broad daylight on some of the island's main roads.

On the other hand, Ramos contradicted the stereotype that citizens usually have about his clients when he said that "many people think that my clients are drug dealers, but the truth is that they are not, as far as I know."

However, the businessman, who depends both in steel and confidentiality to keep his business afloat, admitted that he always tries “to learn from my clients and most of the time I recognize the names of their businesses, but if that person has the money and is very private with his or her things, I won’t deny them that extra protection. We are just protecting the life of that person and his family.”

He also said that from time to time his clients come requesting more lights, sirens or even a smoke system "like in movies and we have to do everything we can to please them because the market here isn’t that big."

He also mentioned that the relationship between his team of tinsmiths, electricians, and auto parts manufacturers and his clients is different comparing with employees in any other workshop.

“People come here afraid of having their car stolen or being killed. They are trusting us with their life and that of their families and they are paying thousands and thousands of dollars” for the service, concluded Ramos.


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