Mexico: Examining Cartel War Violence Through a Protective Intelligence Lens
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
Mexico’s long and violent drug cartel war has recently intensified. The past week witnessed the killings of no fewer than six senior police officials. One of those killed was Edgar Millan Gomez, acting head of the Mexican federal police and the highest-ranking federal cop in Mexico. Millan Gomez was shot to death May 8 just after entering his home in Mexico City.
Within the past few days, six suspects have been arrested in connection with his murder. One of the ringleaders is said to be a former federal highway police officer. The suspects appear to have ties to the Sinaloa cartel. In fact, Millan Gomez was responsible for a police operation in January that led to the arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva, the cartel's second-in-command. Mexican police believe Beltran Leyva’s brother Arturo (who is also a significant player in the Sinaloa cartel structure) commissioned the hit.
During the same time period, violence from the cartel war has visited the family of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, the Sinaloa cartel leader who has the distinction of being Mexico’s most-wanted drug kingpin. On May 8, Guzman Loera’s son Edgar Guzman Beltran and two companions were killed by a large-scale ambush as they left a shopping mall in Culiacan, Sinaloa.
In addition to discussing the geopolitical implications of this escalation in the violence, we thought it would be instructive to look at the recent wave of violence through the lens of protective intelligence. Such an effort can allow us not only to see what lessons can be learned from the attacks, but also provide insight on how similar attacks can be avoided in the future, which is the real aim of protective intelligence.
Tactical Details of the Recent Attacks
On the evening of May 1, Roberto Velasco Bravo, director of investigations against organized crime for Mexico's state public security police (SSP), was gunned down as he returned to his Mexico City home. Two assailants reportedly approached Velasco Bravo as he parked his sport utility vehicle and shot him in the head at close range before fleeing the scene. Although the incident initially was believed to have been a robbery attempt gone bad, the discovery of a .380 caliber handgun fitted with a suppressor near the crime scene suggests the shooting was actually a professionally targeted assassination. Local press also reported that Velasco Bravo died on his day off and that his bodyguard had been ordered to stand down because he was planning to travel outside the city.
On May 2, less than 24 hours after the Velasco Bravo shooting, inspector Jose Aristeo Gomez Martinez, the administrative director of the Federal Preventative Police (PFP), was gunned down in front of his home in the wealthy Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City. Gomez Martinez and a woman were talking in front of the house around midnight when two armed men surprised them and reportedly attempted to force Gomez Martinez into the back seat of his own car. Gomez Martinez struggled with the men and was shot in the arm and chest. Mexican authorities say the motive for the Gomez Martinez killing remains murky. However, the circumstances surrounding the case –- he was shot with a suppressed .380 pistol outside of his residence — are certainly very similar to the Velasco Bravo and Millan Gomez killings.
In the Millan Gomez attack, alleged members of a murder-for-hire gang shot and killed the federal police chief as he returned to his home in the early hours of the morning. Millan Gomez was reportedly shot eight times at close range by a gunman armed with two handguns — one of which was a .380 with a suppressor. The gunman was reportedly waiting inside Millan Gomez's apartment building. The victim apparently struggled with his assailant and attempted to grab the suppressed weapon from the gunman. During the struggle, the gunman reportedly shot Millan Gomez in the hand once with the suppressed weapon and then several times in the torso with his back-up weapon, which was not suppressed. Millan Gomez's two-man protection team, who had just dropped him off at the door, heard the nonsuppressed shots and returned to the apartment building to investigate. One member of the protection team was wounded in the chest by the fleeing gunman, but the team was able to wound and apprehend him alive. The interrogation of the gunman and the investigation of the equipment and other items found in his possession led to the recent arrest of the five other suspects allegedly tied to the assassination gang.
Also on May 8, Edgar Guzman Beltran, the son of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, was killed at 8:50 p.m. local time in Culiacan, Sinaloa state. Guzman Beltran was leaving a local shopping mall with two friends — one of whom was Arturo Meza Cazares, the son of Blanca Margarita Cazares Salazar, reputed to be the cartel's top money launderer — when the three were caught in a heavy hail of gunfire. Reports from the scene indicate that the team that attacked Guzman Beltran may have involved as many as 40 gunmen from a rival cartel who opened up on the three men with AK-47 rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Other reports put the number of ambushers at around 20. In any event, even 20 men armed with AKs and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher is a significant force, and something one would expect to see in a war zone such as Iraq or Afghanistan rather than in Mexico.
On May 9, Esteban Robles Espinosa, commander of Mexico City's investigative police force, was attacked by a group of armed men shortly after he left his house at about 8:30 a.m. Four gunmen traveling in a truck and another in a compact car opened fire on him at an intersection near his home. The attack appears to be a classic vehicular ambush involving a blocking vehicle and an assault team. Robles Espinosa apparently attempted to avoid the attacks and flee the site, but his escape attempt ended when his vehicle struck a tree. Robles Espinosa was shot seven times — four times in the throat, once in the neck, and twice in the head. He died shortly after arriving at a hospital. Authorities reportedly found 20 casings from 9mm and .40 caliber cartridges at the scene of the attack. The placement of the shots in this case appears to be uncharacteristically controlled for Mexico, where victims are normally wounded in various parts of their bodies. The concentration of wounds in the head and neck would appear to indicate that at least one of the shooters was an accomplished marksman. The shot placement might also indicate that Robles Espinosa was wearing a protective vest, and the assailants, being aware of the vest, directed their fire toward his head.
The Millan Gomez, Velasco Bravo and Gomez Martinez shootings were all similar in that they involved suppressed .380 handguns and were intended to be clean and discreetly conducted events. They stand in stark contrast to many of the cartel killings in Mexico, which tend to be more like the killings of Beltran Guzman and involve massive firepower and very little precision or discretion. Even though the Millan Gomez killing got messy, and the shooter was caught, it was intended to be a very quiet, surgical hit — until Murphy's law kicked in for the assassin.
It is notable that the killing of the four police officials all occurred in proximity to their homes, and that all four attacks were conducted during an arrival or departure at the home. It has long been common for terrorists and criminal kidnappers or assassins to focus on the home or office of their prospective target, because these are known locations that the potential victim frequently visits with some regularity. Also, homes are often preferable to offices, because they usually have less security, and criminals or terrorists can operate around them more easily and with less chance of being caught. Arrivals and departures are prime times for attacks, because the target is generally easier to locate and quickly acquire when on foot or in a car than when in a building.
Furthermore, the objective of preoperational surveillance is to detect the target's patterns and vulnerabilities so that an attack can be planned. Historically, one of the most likely times for an attack to occur is when a potential victim is leaving from or returning to a known location. The most predictable move traditionally is the home-to-office move; however, the team that conducted the surveillance on Velasco Bravo, Gomez Martinez and Millan Gomez apparently found them to be predictable in their evening moves and planned the attacks accordingly. Robles Espinosa was attacked during the more-stereotypical morning move. Attacking in the evening could also give the assailants the cover of darkness. The low-key assassination cell behind the Velasco Bravo, Gomez Martinez and Millan Gomez attacks seemed to prefer that kind of cover. It is also possible that in the Guzman Beltran case, the shopping mall was a known place for him to frequent and that he had established a pattern of visiting there in the evening.
All five of the attacks also occurred in close proximity to vehicles. Millan Gomez, Gomez Martinez and Guzman Beltran were attacked while outside their vehicles; Robles Espinosa and Vellasco Bravo were attacked while in theirs, though neither of the men had an armored vehicle.
Protective Intelligence Lessons
A former federal police officer was arrested in connection with the Millan Gomez case, and he was found to have a list of license plates and home addresses; but such information alone is not enough to plan an assassination. Extensive preoperational surveillance is also required. From the careful planning of the Velasco Bravo, Gomez Martinez and Millan Gomez hits, it is apparent that the targets were under surveillance for a prolonged period of time. The fact that Robles Espinosa was hit during his morning move from home to work also tends to indicate that he had an established pattern that had been picked up by surveillance. Even in the Guzman Beltran killing, one does not amass a team of 20 or 40 assassins at the drop of a hat. Clearly, the operation was planned and the target had been watched.
The fact that surveillance was conducted in each of these cases means that the people conducting that surveillance were forced to expose themselves to detection. Furthermore, preoperational surveillance is normally not that sophisticated, since people rarely look for it. This means that had countersurveillance efforts been used these efforts likely would have been detected, especially since countersurveillance efforts often focus on known, predictable locations such as the home and office.
Another important lesson is that bodyguards and armored cars are no guarantee of protection in and of themselves. Assailants can look for and exploit vulnerabilities — as they did in the Velasco Bravo and Millan Gomez cases — if they are allowed to conduct surveillance at will and are given the opportunity to thoroughly assess the protective security program. Even if there are security measures in place, malefactors may choose to attack in spite of security and, in such a case, will do so with adequate resources to overcome those security measures. If there are protective agents, the attackers will plan to neutralize them first. If there is an armored vehicle, they will find ways to defeat the armor — something easily accomplished with the rocket-propelled grenades, LAW rockets and .50 caliber sniper rifles found in the arsenals of Mexican cartels.
Unfortunately, many people believe that the presence of armed bodyguards — or armed guards combined with armored vehicles — provides absolute security. This macho misconception is not confined to Latin America, but is pervasive there. Frankly, when we consider the size of the assault team employed in the Guzman Beltran hit (even if it consisted of only 20 men) and their armaments, there are very few protective details in the world sufficiently trained and equipped to deal with that level of threat. Executive protection teams and armored cars provide very little protection against dozens of attackers armed with AK rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, especially if the attackers are given free rein to conduct surveillance and plan their attack.
Indeed, many people — including police and executive protection personnel — either lack or fail to employ good observation skills. These skills are every bit as important as marksmanship — if not more — but are rarely taught or practiced. Additionally, even if a protection agent observes something unusual, in many cases there is no system in place to record these observations and no efficient way to communicate them or to compare them to the observations of others. There is often no process to investigate such observations in attempt to determine if they are indicators of something untoward.
The real counter to such a threat is heightened security awareness and a robust countersurveillance program, coupled with careful route and schedule analysis. Routes and traveling times must be varied, surveillance must be looked for and those conducting surveillance must not be afforded the opportunity to operate at will and with impunity. Suspicious events must be catalogued and investigated. Emphasis must also be placed on attack recognition and driver training to provide every possibility of spotting a pending attack and avoiding it before it can be successfully launched. Action is always faster than reaction. And even a highly-skilled protection team can be defeated if the attacker gains the tactical element of surprise — especially if coupled with overwhelming firepower.
Ideally, those conducting surveillance must be made uncomfortable or even manipulated into revealing their position when it proves advantageous to countersurveillance teams. Dummy motorcade moves are a fine tool to add into the mix, as is the use of safe houses for alternate residences and offices. Any ploy to confuse, deceive or deter potential scouts that ultimately make them tip their hand are valuable tricks of the trade employed by protective intelligence practitioners — professionals tasked with the difficult mission of deterring the type of assassinations we have recently seen in Mexico.