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For bullet-proof underwear, Miguel Caballero is your man

A Colombian entrepreneur has developed an international following for his protective attire.

BOGOTA — Miguel Caballero slides open a box of 9mm bullets. “Choose one,” he says to his employee Lizeth Castaneda. He points his revolver at Castaneda's abdomen and fires. Seconds later, his victim giggles with relief.

This fear-inducing demonstration is actually a marketing tactic. Caballero has shot at more than 100 people — many of them employees — in order to instill faith in his product: bullet-proof fashion.

Caballero, 41, dresses presidents, government officials and their bodyguards, as well as businesspeople and celebrities, in discrete and stylish blazers, leather jackets and tuxedo shirts that can stop bullets shot from pistols and Mini Uzis.

Press reports refer to U.S. President Barack Obama, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Spain's Prince Felipe as Caballero clients. But don't look for confirmation. “The clients can get hysterical,” Caballero explains.

Photos of clients he is allowed to talk about line his office walls. There's Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. And, for the celebrity-inclined, there's actor Steven Seagal, sporting one of three leather jackets designed for him by Caballero, along with two bullet-proof kimonos.

As his BlackBerry buzzes with orders from around the world, Caballero is uniquely positioned to understand the shifting security concerns of the rich and powerful.

His opened his business 16 years ago, hoping to fill what he perceived as a local need in a country that has been plagued by violence for half a century. “If the product functions in Colombia, it’ll function in any part of the world,” he says matter-of-factly.

As he speaks, Caballero pulls the bullet out of the heavy cotton jacket his employee wore during the bullet demonstration — it only passed through the first few protective sheets sewn in. Caballero's handiwork doesn't come cheap: A bullet-proof polo shirt can go for $900 to $7,500 depending on the level of protection, and a leather jacket costs $2,900.

Today, most of Caballero's products will be shipped out of the country. As security in Colombia has improved, domestic sales have plummeted while demand from abroad has skyrocketed: Exports now make up 92 percent of Caballero' s sales. His company now has 18 distributors, or “VIP Offices,” around the world, including ones in Beirut, Milan and Houston. Russians flock to his London boutique in the posh Harrod's department store, and politicians at risk of assassination put in custom orders in Johannesburg, according to Caballero.

While the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks prompted Europeans to join his client portfolio, nowhere has demand soared so much as in Mexico, where drug cartel wars have brought terrifying levels of violence.

“Today, Mexico is a very important market for us,” says Caballero, adding that it accounts for 30 percent of his company’s exports. In response to demand, Caballero even opened a boutique in an upscale neighborhood in Mexico City.