On the surface, the drug war across the border boils down to a conflict between Mexico’s military and rival groups of cartels. This is true, but it leaves out Mexico’s other conflict — one fought against civilians through kidnapping, extortion and assassination. Little wonder that those who can afford it are now fueling a boom in professional bodyguards and guns-for-hire, many of them based in the United States.

And the boom is not just limited to jobs in Mexico — it’s happening on both sides of the border. It involves private security firms employed by both Mexican and U.S. citizens traveling from one country to the other, to border regions, or fueled by Mexican citizens relocating to the U.S. to escape the violence. The jobs given to the bodyguards involve protecting their clients against violent cartel threats and abductions, and helping negotiate kidnapping cases.

There are also serious risks. Some companies won’t work in Mexico proper because of the danger, while others do so — quietly.

R. Kent Morrison, president of Texas security firm BlackStone Group, hates the term bodyguard. For the heavily-built ex-Navy commando and Gulf War veteran, the term suggests a “big hulking gorilla with dark sunglasses and the trench coat.” Tucked away in a small office building in the wooded suburbs of west Austin, BlackStone is among a number of companies near the border competing in the more exclusive field of “executive protection,” security industry lingo for a more elite (and expensive) brand of hired muscle.

“Historically in the U.S., security has been the stereotypical, polyester-clad, eight-dollar-an-hour security guard, and that more than anything is just a way to reduce liability insurance costs,” Morrison says. “What we do is focus on providing security to usually high-net-worth individuals who actually have a need for security and aren’t provided that by some government entity.”

But when discussing Mexico, Morrison is cautious. He says BlackStone is seeing growth from Mexican nationals, mostly business executives traveling north, but only gives a rough estimate and doesn’t give out the names of individual customers. “I’ll tell you in the last five years the requests that we’ve had for those types of services from individuals and businessmen traveling from south of the border has probably doubled,” he said.

He says having a security detail in Mexico is now a literal “status symbol” for the country’s elite. And as that elite relocates to states like Texas because of violence or travels to do business, “they want to duplicate the services that they’ve grown accustomed to down south.”

This caution to discuss specifics reflects the shadowy and hazardous nature of Mexico’s private security business. Clayton International, an “executive protection” and counter-kidnapping subsidiary of longtime Iraq mercenary group Triple Canopy, and reported to work extensively in Mexico, said it would not answer questions from Danger Room due the “sensitivity of the subject.” Philip Klein, president of Houston-area Klein Investigations and Consulting, said his company has seen a 120 percent increase over the past two years, from 55 “sorties” to Mexico in 2009 to 121 last year. Klein expects the “unrest to continue down there, unless the government can get control,” and therefore more business for his company. But Klein is reluctant to discuss details.

One reason for the reluctance, according to a Triple Canopy employee speaking on background to Danger Room, is sheer risk. “The thing about working in Mexico is despite what movies or T.V. or popular perception might be is that nobody down there is armed on an executive protection detail. The Mexicans will not allow it — period,” the employee said. And not only that, if the cartels do attempt an assassination, they will “kill the protective detail too just to make sure all the loose ends are tied up.”

Mexico does indeed prohibit foreign nationals from carrying weapons. Instead, companies have subcontracted out the gun-slinging to Mexican freelancers and local firms. Rather than an armed U.S. mercenary team, a typical security detail includes two unarmed “detail leaders” from the U.S. in charge of four armed Mexican guards, hired from local firms or police officers moonlighting for extra pay. The U.S. agents call the shots and pick the travel routes, while the Mexican guards provide the muscle and firepower.

But the reliance U.S. mercs have on their armed Mexican subcontractors comes with another set of risks: the subcontractors can be easily out-bidded. Morrison said that “on a Tuesday, this group may be a completely solid group and Thursday they’ve been corrupted by the cartels.”

But whether the demand in border states like Texas is being fueled by actual threats of kidnapping or just the fear it could happen, however, is hard to ascertain. But Mexican citizens are facing a different level of risk. In a nod to the reality of the sometimes blurry distinctions between legitimate business in Mexico and organized crime, Morrison added that clients have told him: “‘A competitor made a play for my company and I have to come in and make sure they don’t strengthen that play by snatching my kid.’”

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