Protective Intelligence Lessons from a Failed Assassination in Mexico

Protective Intelligence Lessons from a Failed Assassination in Mexico
June 29, 2020 SDC Development 2

Protective Intelligence Lessons from a Failed Assassination in Mexico

By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart

At 6:35 on the morning of June 26, the armored Suburban carrying Mexico City’s Secretary of Public Security Omar García Harfuch, was traveling along the Paseo de la Reforma through the heart of Mexico City’s prestigious Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City. As the vehicle approached the intersection of Monte Blanco, a public works truck and a white Suburban suddenly pulled in front of Secretary García Harfuch’s Suburban, completely blocking the intersection. A group of some eight men popped up over the side of the truck and opened fire on García Harfuch’s vehicle with heavy caliber weapons, including .50 caliber rifles. A second group of gunmen jumped out of the white Suburban and also opened fire on the vehicle. Some media reports suggest that the men also employed at least one hand grenade against the targeted vehicle.

With trees and other obstructions on the boulevard to the vehicle’s left, and a bus parked on the right, the driver of the Suburban appears to have had very little option for driving forward out of the ambush. From photos of the targeted vehicle, it does not appear that he attempted to ram the heavy truck. It is unclear what vehicles were behind him to keep him from backing out, but the vehicle remained at the attack site, indicating that the driver was not able to back up to escape.

After shooting at the vehicle for several minutes, the gunmen from the white Suburban returned to their vehicle, reversed, and left the area. For some unknown reason, the truck was unable to leave, and the gunmen in the back of the truck fled the attack site on foot. I have seen no photographic evidence to support the claim that a fragmentation grenade was used in the attack.  Some media reports stated that García Harfuch’s security team “repelled the attackers,” but I have seen no indication that the armed officers in the Suburban did in fact engage the assailants. From CCTV video footage of the incident, it appears that the attackers left of their own volition after they presumed the target was dead. Other reports in the media have suggested that the attackers cut off a security follow car, but photos and videos of the attack and aftermath do not provide any evidence of a follow car, or a security lead vehicle. Just the armored limo.

The Mexico City Prosecutor General’s Office reported that police arrested 12 of the attackers in the aftermath of the attack. They subsequently arrested another seven alleged attackers in a series of police raids on properties believed to be linked to the operation. Mexican officials also reported that some 28 gunmen were involved in the audacious attack. Police reportedly recovered five .50 caliber rifles, 34 assault rifles, 8 handguns, 7 fragmentation grenades, one grenade launcher, and 51 Molotov cocktails from the group involved in the attack.

Despite the large size of the attack team, the successful ambush of García Harfuch’s vehicle and the hundreds of rounds they fired at the vehicle, the security secretary escaped with only three wounds. Both security officers sitting in the front seats of the targeted vehicle were killed in the attack, as was an innocent bystander. While the ambush was well-planned and resourced, it ultimately failed to kill the target due to the incompetence of the team executing the attack.

García Harfuch and others in the Mexican government are blaming this attack on the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG). The CJNG is one of the largest cartel groups in Mexico, and over the past five years has arguably been the most aggressive cartel group. Media reports indicate that the government intercepted a series of telephone calls between June 8 and 12, in which they learned the CJNG was planning an attack against one of four targets. In addition to García Harfuch, the other three potential targets were Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard; Public Security Minister Alfonzo Durazo; Financial Intelligence Unit head Santiago Nieto. It is unclear why security for García Harfuch was not increased considering this intelligence.

This well-planned attack by such a large and heavily armed team of gunmen in Mexico City’s most prestigious neighborhood has served as a wake-up call for many of Mexico’s most important figures.   Very few security details in Mexico are capable of defeating a well-planned ambush by 28 gunmen armed to the teeth with heavy caliber weapons. However, there are several things that security details in Mexico City – and in high-threat environments elsewhere in the country and the world – can do to help prevent such an attack from being launched against their protectees.

An Armored Vehicle and Armed Officers are not Enough to Deter an Attack

Perhaps the first thing this attack demonstrates is that the mere presence of armed officers and an armored vehicle are not in and of themselves sufficient to deter an attack in a high-threat environment. If a hostile actor is permitted to conduct surveillance against a target, they will be able to identify life and travel patterns they can use to plan an attack. Unhindered surveillance also allows a hostile actor the opportunity to observe and quantify the security measures in place to protect the potential target. This provides them with the opportunity to exploit security vulnerabilities  and to deploy sufficient force to overwhelm the security team.  A robust program to counter and detect surveillance by hostile actors must thus be employed to deny them the opportunity to conduct surveillance at will.

Armored vehicles are excellent tools, and the armor in this case appears to have performed well. However, if an armored vehicle is trapped on “the X” (as the attack site is called), and unable to get away from the places specifically selected for the attack by the assailant, the target remains vulnerable despite the armored vehicle. Situational awareness, rapid attack recognition and a reaction to the unfolding attack are thus critical.

In this case, the attackers, came prepared with several .50 caliber rifles to punch through the armor. They were also reportedly armed with dozens of Molotov cocktails that they did not employ in this attack. As the history of Molotov cocktails deployed against tanks and armored personnel carriers in urban areas demonstrates, they are highly effective in attacks against armored vehicles. It is unclear why the attack team in this case did not employ their Molotov’s, but the photographs of targeted vehicle showed no sign of fire damage. It appears the attackers believed that they had killed the target with their heavy weapons fire and so they left without torching the disabled vehicle.

Complacency Kills

The best way to “get off the X” is to avoid it in the first place. In addition to denying a hostile actor the ability to conduct surveillance, it is also important to avoid setting patterns that hostile actors can use to plan an attack. This means varying the routes and times used for predictable movements – which is easier said than done. People are creatures of habit and by nature they like to settle into scheduled, comfortable routines.  I have not seen an indication of where García Harfuch was traveling to and from at the time of the attack against him, but given the hour it is likely that it was a trip to a gym or his office. It is also likely that this was a movement he made with some regularity. Related to item one above, many people assume that if they have an armored vehicle and armed security, they do not have to vary their routes and times.  As this case vividly illustrates, however, that is a deadly assumption.

Another related assumption is that there are “safer” areas of a city and country, and that people moving around these safer areas can be less cautious about their schedules and security arrangements than if they visit more “dangerous” areas. Lomas de Chapultepec is perhaps one of the most heavily police patrolled areas of Mexico City, and there are innumerable private security guards and executive protection details operating in the area. This can lead some to assume that it is less dangerous than other parts of the city. While Lomas de Chapultepec undoubtedly has less street crime that the slums of Tepito, if someone is being targeted by a sophisticated threat actor, this environment in and of itself will provide little protection.

The assumption that an area is safer can also lead to a sense of complacency that also leads to a false sense of security and the target practicing less situational awareness than they would in a more dangerous environment. Complacency is a deadly enemy of security and is thusly a killer. It must be fought at all costs.

Beware Cloned Vehicles

The truck used in the attack was the type and color used by the Grupo Carso infrastructure and construction company and bore the markings of the company. It thus did not seem out of place in the Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood, and provided the truck with “cover for status” for being there. It also provided a convenient means for transporting and hiding several of the attackers and their heavy weapons. However, Grupo Carso released a press statement stating that the truck used in the attack was rather a clone and not one of their vehicles.  The use of elaborately fabricated cloned vehicles is a common cartel tactic used for both smuggling and attacks. Cartels have used cloned commercial, police and military vehicles in their operations, presenting a challenge to security personnel to be able to distinguish them from the real deal. They also frequently use counterfeit uniforms for their personnel. In this case, the presence of abandoned fluorescent yellow clothing in the back of the truck would seem to indicate that at least some of the attackers were also at some point dressed as construction workers.

Advance teams, five minute cars and other security elements must conduct their duties fully and study the activities of such vehicles and the personnel associated with them to determine if they are behaving in accordance with their purported cover, or if there is some sort of bad demeanor or other indicator that the vehicle and personnel are not what they are pretending to be.

Omar García Harfuch is very fortunate to have survived the well-planned and heavily resourced attack directed against him. His attackers had the time, opportunity, and weapons to finish him off if they had realized he was not dead. He only escaped death due to chance — and the incompetence of his attackers. The next target may not be so lucky. Potential targets must employ other tools to keep themselves off the X.