Executive Protection Academy

Executive Protection Academy

Executive Protection: Alarming inability to detect gross surveillance

Hostile surveillance detection is clearly the Achilles heel of current executive protection, as in all the high-impact attacks and kidnappings in recent years in Latin America, criminals conducted prolonged surveillance of their victims without being detected, even though this surveillance was quite obvious and careless.

In a study on the subject, the famous Straford agency refers to the following:

"Given that hostile surveillance is so widely practiced, it is surprising to consider that, in general, criminals and terrorists are terrible at carrying it out. There are some exceptions, such as the relatively sophisticated surveillance conducted by Greenpeace and some other groups trained by the Ruckus Society, or the discreet and highly detailed surveillance conducted by some high-level art and jewelry thieves, but such cases are the exception rather than the norm."

Indeed, high-level jewel thieves, such as Olivera Cirkovic, the redeemed former leader of the Pink Panther gang, was highly sophisticated in surveilling her targets, to the extent that she installed video cameras in the parking lot of a jeweler in Athens whom she eventually kidnapped. But such sophisticated groups are rare.

So Straford is right: in general, criminals are very bad at carrying out hostile surveillance. We can give two recent examples from Ecuador: the mayor of Manta Agustín Intriago was assassinated in 2023 after being watched by the same little truck allegedly selling water for more than 15 days, without anyone noticing.

Likewise, recent investigations into the assassination of former Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio revealed that the site of the event where he was to be assassinated had been staked out in a stolen vehicle in the days prior to the assassination. Now, no sophisticated criminal vigilante is going to carry out this activity in a stolen vehicle, as this exposes him to immediate detection by specialized teams and also to possible chance arrests during the hostile surveillance operation-thus compromising the entire operation for free.

Professional criminals use stolen vehicles at the time of the attack only in order to avoid being traced, abandoning them shortly thereafter in pre-planned locations, but never to surveil the target.

Now, as much as Straford rightly points out the criminals' lack of sophistication in hostile surveillance, the unfortunate thing is that they don't need more! Why would the criminals invest time, money and effort in setting up a sophisticated surveillance system with multiple agents, vehicles and other coordinated resources if the same water truck for weeks on end is enough? Why would they care about the stolen vehicle if no one notices it anyway?

There is no need for them to be more discreet and careful, as their effort and sophistication match the need. However, they clearly have no need to do so, as the protectors lack the most basic knowledge of surveillance detection techniques, and counter-surveillance is not part of their standard procedures.

The good news is that protectors, if they decide to learn this important and obvious lesson and start implementing these techniques, will really need only the basics to detect criminal surveillance very easily, and thus dismantle the attack safely and well in advance.

Of course, over time, criminals will become more sophisticated in surveilling their victims, but this will require them to involve many more resources, people and logistics, and this too would be no guarantee against a trained counter-surveillance team. Moreover, setting up effective counter-surveillance, if done well, is much easier and cheaper than setting up sophisticated hostile surveillance. We teach this in detail in our courses.
If the protectors take the battle to this terrain, they have a significant advantage over the enemy. And most importantly: in the analogy of a soccer field, the game would take place in the middle of the field and not in front of the goal, as was the case until now, where goals were conceded at all times.

Shifting the weight of the operation to counter-surveillance, along with intelligence, protective logistics and early warning in a structured manner, will make our profession safer for both protectees and protectors.