A Rare Win in Mexico. Working Alone and the Worst-Case Scenario.

According to Cop saves three government officials, “On February 2, a Veracruz State Police officer assigned to protect Acayucan district attorney Marisela Rojas, thwarted an assassination attempt by three gunmen in Villa de Oluta. Rojas, local Congresswoman Florencia Martínez, and an unnamed councilman were at El Delirio restaurant when the attack took place. The targeted attempt was believed to be related to an investigation by Ms. Rojas into a January 15 shooting that left two people dead at a bar in the city of Acayucan.  According to Veracruz governor Cuitláhuac García, after the attempted attack, several arrests were made, and a vehicle used by the gunmen was located and seized.  Surveillance video footage shows the hitmen running towards the entrance of the restaurant at the beginning of the attack.

While seated at the principal’s table, the officer, noticing a gunman approached one of the restaurant entrances, immediately stands up and appears to open fire first. Authorities said no injuries or casualties were reported in the incident.

Several Observations Regarding this Attack.

The officer was likely working alone at the time of the attack based upon the following:

  • Veracruz has one of the lowest numbers of police officers per citizen in Mexico (1.6 officers per 1,000 citizens) and is resourced only to provide minimal protective support.  This is exacerbated by large numbers of officials potentially requiring protection and an environment with equally large numbers of potential threat actors with unlimited resources to include financing to outsource targeted assassinations.
  • The principal was a low-level prosecutor. Despite being the target of active threats, she was unlikely to have been assigned a large protective detail.  Media articles related to this incident are consistent in describing the officer as “part of Rojas’ security detail.” This infers that the officer worked with at least one other person, most likely a security driver.
  • The attack’s location, “El Delirio” restaurant, is within walking distance of a municipal building where the prosecutor was likely working. The movement itself was likely unplanned, with the restaurant selected based upon popularity and proximity. Proximity probably led to a decision to walk there, leaving the vehicle and security driver behind. The movement, mistakenly considered low risk, could have had a far different outcome, i.e., fatal results.  Static surveillance of the municipal building would easily have noted the departure on foot and subsequently alerted additional assets to perform mobile surveillance to identify the destination and alert the attack team. The relatively unsophisticated attack likely relied upon a single attack team member to conduct pre-attack surveillance and/or follow the group before alerting the remaining members to initiate the attack.
  • A video review of the attack shows the officer initially seated, both hands empty, and there are no indications he received advanced warning by radio or either a text or call on his cell phone by another member of the detail such as a security driver in a vehicle staged outside.

The officer and principal(s) had several factors working against them.

  • Outgunned and outnumbered.
  • The attackers had the advantage of surprise, numbers (3), and weapons (at least one long gun).
  • Multiple entrances on different sides of the building that would facilitate an attack from different directions simultaneously.
  • Site of the attack, a restaurant.  The potential target is seated and on the “X” for a fixed time in a restaurant. Determining that time is easy by simply watching. Additionally, in more formal settings, the particulars about a reservation are not difficult to establish and are especially easy when subterfuge is employed in addition to surveillance. A restaurant as a selected attack site favors the attacker by having:
  • Generally, a single main entrance that is easy to control. A shooter event will lead to massive panic, with occupants likely initially freezing in place and defaulting to the entrance they entered, their first choice but not necessarily the best one for their exit.
  • A large open area without significant available cover (except for an overturned table or the bar if there is one. In this instance, the officer could utilize the counter as cover to reload and continue to engage the attackers).
  • Table placement and occupancy preclude easy, unobstructed egress and escape.
  • Typically, few options for alternative egress, such as through a kitchen or a restroom hallway with an emergency exit.

Lessons Learned

Action always beats reaction. Executive protection specialists/close protection officers must know and understand this. If you do not, you must! Nowhere is this more evident but in vehicle dynamics. In terms of attacks, I will refer to Tony Scotti’s classic article, “The Science of Escaping the Kill Zone.” As Tony notes,“Kill Zones are not subjective; they are science – escaping them, understanding them, and avoiding them is based on the laws of physicsNo matter the scenario, a Kill Zone is a time distance relationship.” This is just as true inside the vehicle as it is when outside it.

Recognizing the unfolding assault with the first attacker at the entrance, the solo officer immediately stands, draws his pistol, and appears to fire first. Emptying his magazine, he moves, reloads from cover, and continues to engage the remaining attackers. In this incident, immediate aggressive action on his part interrupts and neutralizes the assault. Equally critical was his mindset to dominate the confrontation.

  • Just as in-vehicle attacks, moving targets are harder to acquire and neutralize. Stationary targets, on the other hand, are easy to kill. Nowhere is this more true than in a restaurant. Potential targeted persons are seated and proverbial “sitting ducks” with few options other than going low and using a table as limited cover. Any movement in the open to escape, such as to the back of the house, i.e., kitchen, is likely to fail. Even if crouching, the intended target, an untrained, non-stress inoculated principal, will likely expose more body surface area to gunfire than simply “going to ground” at the moment.
  • Although the restaurant had three entrances, the attackers used two on one side only to enter.  This created a “fatal funnel” from which the officer was able to stop the unidirectional attack. Using entrances on one side only essentially negated both the attackers’ numerical and firepower advantages. Had the attackers exploited the side entrance also, mounting the attack from two directions simultaneously, the attack would likely have succeeded with the principal being killed as well as the officer. The point here is that attackers make mistakes too. Not every attacker will be a former operator of a member of the “A-Team.” That being the case, never underestimate an adversary; even the “C” team has wins.

Even for short distance foot movements, the principal vehicle should be staged either close by or at the destination, facing in the direction of traffic to facilitate a departure. For lengthier movements, I recommend positioning at an intermediate location on the same side of the street the principal is expected to walk by or staged so that it can respond to where needed if the route or circumstances/need change. Trailing the foot movement is impractical in traffic and, when done, always draws unwanted attention to the movement and principal. The advantages of properly staging your vehicle(s) include:

  • When static, the security driver should perform surveillance detection, potentially observing pre-attack indicators and providing early warning. Even better is having a dedicated resource to do this. A person(s) that provides area overwatch, able to blend in and be innocuous (gray). In this incident, had the principal vehicle been pre-staged near the destination (not at, so as to not reveal it) with an unobstructed view of the main (primary) entrances, the attackers may have been detected, enabling an exit (“getting off the X”) by the principal from the restaurant before the attack was initiated or if noted early enough, the movement avoided altogether.
  • Facilitating an evacuation. Even if not armored, a vehicle provides limited cover. The vehicle can serve as a mobile safe haven when parked. If armored, it may provide vital ballistic cover from weapons fire, buying time and enabling escape from the area.
  • Adjusting to itinerary changes that began as a foot movement but now due to the distance to the next location requires travel by vehicle.
  • Ability to drive to a hospital in the event of a medical emergency.
  • Access to equipment not easily individually carried by the executive protection specialist, such as a large trauma kit or an Automated External Defibrillator (AED).

Working solo means you are always on the X.  In an attack, you can either fight or cover/evacuate, but you cannot do both effectively at the same time. You may have to fight just enough to facilitate the principal evacuation (escape), always the first priority. Ideally, you recognize the pre-attack indicators and leave before the attack unfolds. Even then, this departure could cause the attacker(s) to initiate the assault at the moment as they believe their intent is now known. Be prepared that the anticipatory evacuation movement may be under fire.

In a high threat environment, the criticality of an advance presence prior to the principal’s arrival cannot be overstated, especially if it is covert. I have eaten at a restaurant to check it out, never introducing myself so as to not preannounce a visit. Wandered through a hotel before a formal advance to learn the layout and evaluate the “feel” of the place. I cannot tell the number of times, wearing a suit, I have made it back of the house, politely greeting workers and never being challenged. Their assumption likely that I would not be there if I wasn’t supposed to be.  Intimate knowledge of the location your principal will go to allows you to understand the limitations of its physical layout as well as to exploit all its tactical advantages. A lesson I learned years ago when I just began my career was, “Never go through a door that you don’t already know what’s on the other side.”

The Value of Surveillance Detection

Most protection teams are resource-constrained. However, for details in high-risk environments, I have always utilized surveillance detection to some degree and, when possible, personnel dedicated to that function. When resources were not available, I reconned a critical destination when the principal was down for the night in their room. Leaving a principal, albeit “secure” to some degree at a hotel, is not ideal nor recommended, but sometimes necessary. This is particularly important in international environments when one might not possess the baseline knowledge to recognize anomalies in the environment. In my experience, the most effective teams, those most likely to not draw attention, consist of a male/female or female/female. Universally, two males will almost always appear or project as law enforcement, especially if they are. Civilian style clothing or “Hawaii” shirts alone will not hide the tell-tale signs and behaviors. Several years ago, I employed this concept during a week-long, high profile (not by choice) detail which concluded with a nationally-publicized opening event with many dignitaries in attendance. The detail was in a country that had a significant, long-term history of terrorist attacks to include several suicide bombings in the immediate area within which we were operating. The government had a say about the security arrangements and was open-minded and very accommodating to my suggestions. Dedicated surveillance detection personnel to shadow and provide overwatch of all movements over the course of the assignment were critical to the success of the detail. The assigned personnel never physically intersected with the detail but did so only through a variety of communication means. The team was staffed with persons drawn from a plain-clothes national police unit. Unfortunately, only males were initially available for the assignment with the team leader, a male in his late 40’s. With some creativity, a civilian recent female college graduate, who had worked as a VIP liaison, was located. I paired both the team leader and the college graduate. This team was deployed in advance at all locations prior to the principals’ arrivals. Their focus was the inner circle, the “X.” Appearing to be a father and daughter, the two were “ghosts” and blended in especially well considering the area was known for local families and foreign tourists. No one, not even the principals, ever noticed the pair despite being present at almost all the destinations. The male-only unit was used for area surveillance outside the “X,” looking at the big picture, overwatching routes, and movements and prepared to intercede in the event of an emergency.

Restaurants and similar locations in public settings present protection specialists with some unique challenges. In the U.S., when my past principal visited retail locations within a mall, the visits were often followed by lunch at a restaurant there. When possible, I would employ a two-person counter surveillance element using the cover of customers simply eating a meal there or as “window shoppers” with the capability to physically intercept a threat when the principal was moving.  Another concern was and still is with the threat of being caught in an active shooter event. If so, I am always prepared to evacuate through a store to the back of house service corridor, followed by movement through a fire exit or loading dock. I ensure that my security driver is familiar with the perimeter access road(s) to where the loading dock/these exits are located. In the interest of simplicity, by default, I designate one as the emergency evacuation pickup point where the driver should stage.

In Mexico, wrong time, wrong place exposure to a targeted attack where anyone in the way is just collateral damage is a significant risk to protective details.  There, restaurants are often the scene of targeted assassinations for high-profile individuals. Most recently, on December 18th, 2020, the former governor of Jalisco State, Aristóteles Sandoval, was murdered in the restroom of a Puerto Vallarta restaurant, Distrito 5. Two high-end malls I am familiar with, La Isla in Acapulco and Artz Pedregal in Mexico City, have been the scene of past targeted attacks, each in a restaurant.

Table selection for the principal will be influenced by any number of factors such as reservations, availability due to time of day, how busy it is, and the size of the party. In my world, trips typically involve visits to retail locations with an entourage of much executive staff and a host with the same. When you can guide the selection (almost always unlikely as you will not be the decision-maker but rather the host will), select a location:

  • That facilitates emergency egress.
  • That provides some degree of cover or is near some (for example, the bar).
  • Allows the principal to be on an end.

Several factors guide where the executive protection specialist(s) should be positioned.  In general, being seated draws less attention. Recommendations include:

  1. Located to intercept unknown/potential threat person(s) from walking up to your principal’s table.
  2. Maintain clear paths and lines of sight to at least the main entrance and one exit.
  3. When I have had an armed resource, ideally the advance agent, they are generally positioned at the most likely entrance point to be able to intercept an armed threat.

In the case of this incident, the attempted assassination of Acayucan district attorney Marisela Rojas, the State Police officer simply sat at the same table. Operating solo, doing so was sound tactically. Following recommendations 1 and 2, he was in position to immediately address the threats as they became visible.  

Summary

Train for the worst, push your limits and do detailed advances. Learn everything you can about the environment and potential threat actors. Maintain acute situational awareness to exploit adversarial mistakes.

This article was originally published in Executive Protection and Secure Transportation Magazine Spring 2021 Issue.

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