Armoured cars scarce as Colombia elections near

Political violence means Bogota cannot source enough fortified vehicles for politicians.

Candidate for Mayor of Suarez killed in attack
A view of the damaged armoured vehicle which carried mayoral candidate Karina Garcia; the September 2 attack incinerated the car and killed everyone inside [Ernesto Guzman Jr/EPA-EFE]

Bogota, Colombia Karina Garcia wanted to be mayor of Suarez, a town about four hours away from Cali, the third most populous city in Colombia.

The 32-year-old was campaigning with half a dozen people, including her mother, a town council candidate, and two bodyguards. They were all in an SUV driving around the hills of Garcia’s hometown when they were ambushed.

According to official reports, a car blocked the road on which Garcia was travelling, and a group of armed men carrying grenades and long guns took aim at her.

“I tried to pull back the SUV, but it was impossible due to the firepower that the attackers had,” Garcia’s bodyguard told Noticias RCN. “I just shouted at [the passengers to] jump into the bushes.”

Colombian government officials say non-demobilised members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) killed Garcia, her mother and two of her supporters.

Candidate for Mayor of Suarez killed in attack
People light candles at a memorial for slain mayoral candidate Karina Garcia in Suarez, Colombia, in September [Ernesto Guzman Jr/EPA-EFE]

Garcia’s assassination is just the latest, tragic episode in a long history of political violence that has shaped the South American nation.

And because of that history, many Colombians want to have armoured vehicles.

Local technicians have become experts at producing cars, trucks and SUVs that are resistant to various grades of bullets and explosives.

According to Colombia’s Superintendence for Vigilance and Private Security – the government body that regulates and approves the armouring of vehicles – Colombia produces between 1,200 and 1,300 armoured vehicles per year.

It exports some of them to France, Germany, Pakistan, India, Iraq, South Africa, Congo, Nigeria and a host of other countries. But increasing tensions surrounding local elections scheduled for this Sunday have led to a domestic spike in demand for armoured vehicles. And the government is having a hard time sourcing enough of them for Colombia’s politicians. 

Politicians demand armoured vehicles

According to Colombia’s National Civil Registry, the official entity in charge of the elections in the Latin American country, 117,822 candidates are running for public office in Colombia. As of September 24, some 1,609 of them had requested protection from the Colombian government. But hundreds had not received any protection measures up until the final stretch of the political campaign.

The agency said that it was only able to provide 945 candidates with protection during the last 20 days. “We have an emergency because there are no more armoured vehicles in the country for the rental companies to supply us,” said National Protection Unit (UNP) Director Pablo Elias Gonzalez during a debate in Congress in Bogota on September 17.

The UNP is part of Colombia’s Ministry of the Interior. Its data shows that the Colombian government protects about 8,500 people at a total cost of about $770,000 per day. As of October, more than 2,000 of these protected people were running in local elections. That is about four times the number of candidates that were protected by the UNP during local elections in 2015.

We have an emergency because there are no more armoured vehicles in the country for the rental companies to supply us.

by Pablo Gonzalez, Director, National Protection Unit

So far this year, Congress has paid about $15m to rent 307 “level-three” armoured SUVs for members of the lower house. According to conventional standards, level-three vehicles can withstand three shots fired by a .357 Magnum firearm.

Data collected by the Election Observation Mission shows that 69 candidates for local office in Colombia were attacked violently between July 27 and September 27 this year – a 40 percent increase in political violence compared with the 2015 municipal election season.

Garcia was one of seven candidates killed during the 2019 campaign season.

Complex supply chain

Armoured car companies rent out vehicles, supply bodyguards and drivers who are trained in evasive driving techniques. 

Depending on the car and the level of protection required, it can take one month and cost between $10,000 and $13,000 to retrofit a car or SUV by a licensed technician.

“The idea is to make between 180 and 200 armoured vehicles per year,” Alejandro Arias, commercial manager at Armor International, told Al Jazeera. Founded in 1981, his company is Colombia’s oldest and largest armouring firm. 

Most armoured vehicles are allowed – at least in practice – to run red lights and flaunt traffic rules, so renting one for an extended period of time in Colombia requires special authorisation.

“On average, the procedure to get an armour permit can take between 45 days and two months,” Arias said.

During that period, applicants are put through a series of legal and security screenings. Authorities want to know if applicants have a bona fide need for an armoured car. They also want to prevent such vehicles from getting into the hands of criminals. These complex screenings – and the fact that each vehicle is custom-made – make it difficult for companies to have excess stock of armoured vehicles.

armored vehicles
The glass in an armoured car that was attacked shows damage caused by just a few gunshots; most vehicles cannot withstand prolonged fire [Sergio Held/Al Jazeera]

“They armour cars based on specific requests and only if there is prior approval from [Colombia’s] Superintendence of Vigilance and Private Security to armour a vehicle for someone,” Olivero Garcia, president of the National Association of Sustainable Mobility, told Al Jazeera. He leads the guild of car manufacturers and distributors in Colombia.

In a written response to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, the UNP confirmed it currently rents 2,391 armoured vehicles through seven contracts from 21 companies in Colombia.

However, there is still a shortfall because “very few have the number of vehicles required by the [UNP]”.

To address the shortage of armoured vehicles, the UNP is working on modifying contracts to make the technical requirements more flexible and expand the spectrum of vehicles in the market that meet their standards and can be licenced.

While the widespread use of armoured vehicles in Colombia has saved lives, varying levels of armour mean that passengers are not always as safe as they think.

Garcia’s SUV was equipped with level-four armour – based on a European scale that goes to level seven – but it was no match for her attackers’ grenades, long guns and sustained fire. Armoured cars are designed to provide enough protection for a vehicle to drive to safety, but with the road blocked, her entourage had nowhere to go.

Source: Al Jazeera