The untimely demise of Fernando Villavicencio, a respected presidential candidate in Ecuador, occurred on a somber Wednesday, August 9th at 6:20 PM local time. This tragic event unfolded in the aftermath of a bustling campaign event at the Anderson School in Quito.
In the moments preceding his departure, Villavicencio, a 59-year-old accomplished journalist, was ensnared in a deadly ambush. Amidst a protective cordon of National Police agents, he succumbed to a relentless barrage of gunfire, with at least 40 bullets being fired in his direction. His guardians stood helpless against the onslaught, unable to protect him from the calamity. This incident underscores the pressing need to revisit and revise the paradigm and practice of Executive Protection on a global scale.
While the scarcity of details hinders an exhaustive analysis, we can glean eight vital lessons from this sorrowful occurrence:
1. An operation based only on armed companios waiting to react is fatal.
2. Law enforcement officers are ill-suited for executive protection duties unless they’ve undergone precise Executive Protection (EP) training. Policing or military work and executive protection are distinct professions, and while some skills may be useful in both, Executive Protection is a unique profession with its own methodology and doctrine that requires highly specialized training. Including police officers in this operation without proper training was a dangerous improvisation.
3. Firearms, while potent offensive tools, falter in their effectiveness for defensive purposes in Executive Protection. The assertion that firearms, being the weapon of choice in many attacks, are indispensable for defense is debunked by empirical evidence, as illustrated by this assassination. A comprehensive study of 132 attacks on eminent public figures across over 60 countries in the past 123 years reveals a mere 3.79% effectiveness of firearms in executive defense scenarios.
4. The most vulnerable points, or “seams”, in executive protection operations demand meticulous planning and execution. “Seams” refer to the instances when an individual is highly susceptible to risk, typically when alighting from or approaching a vehicle. These moments host the majority of attacks.
5. Armored vehicles are essential for reducing risks to executives. These units mitigate risks during travel and can provide shelter and evacuation in critical moments. One of the key factors that saved President Reagan’s life during the 1980 assassination attempt was the presence of an armored vehicle.
6. Identifying the criminal groups that pose threats to the executive (as was the case here) necessitates intelligence gathering. This proactive approach could potentially have averted the fatal attack, proving more beneficial than relying only on firearms.
7. An unconventional threat cannot be fought with conventional means. The attackers blended into the crowd, while the protectors were easily identifiable even with police uniforms, making them easy targets. In public events, the deployment of shadow agents within the crowd is essential to reduce risks.
8. The concept of close protection is ineffective and dangerous. In most cases, when the crucial moment arrives to protect and react at close range, everything is lost. Counter-surveillance should have been implemented to detect hostile activities in advance, and the potential aggressors’ locations around the “seams” should have been defined to monitor these areas beforehand, alerting and surprising the attackers, instead of relying solely on the reaction that, as almost always, proved ineffective. Therefore, it is crucial to shift the concept of close protection towards an anticipatory approach.
The traditional executive protection is effective mostly if nothing happens, but it crumbles like a house of cards in any real situation. Therefore, it is crucial to change the way we conceive and operate our profession to make it safer for both the protected and the protectors.