Hotel Attacks

14 July 2016, Tijuana, Mexico

On 14 July at 7:30 pm,* (*Mexico-based new outlets say pm, the San Diego Union-Tribune says am) in Tijuana, Mexico, a gunman walked into the lobby of the Marriott Hotel and shot dead one Jorge Kalb Zarmaei, 37, an American, reports the San Diego Union-Tribune. Zarmaei’s 71-year old father was also wounded in the attack.

Jorge Astiazarán, mayor of Tijuana, told the press that the gunman specifically targeted these two people, and that it was an isolated incident. Baja’s Deputy Attorney General for Special Investigations, José María González, said the attack had nothing to do with cartel activity, and that it was specifically related to a business dispute.

El Viga, a Tijuana news outlet, says the victims were Miami, Florida-based hotel investors. They have also been referred to as tobacco investors and persons negotiating with the Mexican government to provide some type of consulting services, possibly related to human trafficking.

Regarding the actual shooting, El So de Tijuana reports that a single gunman entered the hotel, shot the two while they were at hotel reception, and then hurriedly left. Another outlet says the gunman took a briefcase belonging to Zarmaei that contained a computer. The shooter escaped in a black Volkswagen Passat. Two minutes later, the police arrived.

A Mexican official said this was a “direct and programmed attack, perfectly timed.”

Investigators looking into the matter were suspicious of one Mr. José Eduardo Shobert González, who was with the two victims at the time of the shooting. He had previously been convicted of fraud in the US, say Mexican news reports.

Even with these limited details, there are five takeaways from this attack.

First, the assassination was a professional hit. Based on the limited details provided, it seems the victims were decisively “teed up” for the shooting, which means the trigger man or his getaway car team had direct contact with a surveillance agent inside the hotel who was monitoring lobby traffic for Zarmaei and his father. The rapidity of the assassin’s approach, the discharge of his weapon (pistol), the success of hitting the victim, the retrieval of the victim’s briefcase/computer, and his quick egress to an awaiting escape vehicle also demonstrates professionalism.

Second, such assassinations usually only occur when serious money or high political stakes are involved. For this reason, human trafficking and/or expensive business secrets might have been involved, and a drug connection cannot be ruled out. Cartels are known to be involved in Mexico’s resort business as a way of laundering money. Then there is the question of the business partner with the possibly dodgy background, which leaves open multiple possibilities.

Third, it is difficult for hotels to maintain positive control over security in assassination cases like these. Hotels do not regularly monitor the activities of their patrons unless they exhibit noticeably suspicious behavior. And if the latter are maintaining a degree of operational security, it’s even harder for hotel security to detect. If the patrons are interfacing with government personnel over highly sensitive issues that are, nevertheless, legal, then there will likely be no suspicious behavior to detect.

Fourth, there are two points where the hotel might – and this is a big “might” – have been able to detect that something was amiss. They are: 1) the waiting getaway car, and 2) the supposed surveillance agent inside the lobby that spotted the victims for the shooter.

The getaway car would have been ideally positioned to deposit and accept the assassin under stressful conditions and then make an unhindered getaway. Alert and experienced security personnel might have noticed this. Parking attendants cross-trained in security might have noticed this as well.

Regarding point 2, hotel security might have been able to notice the assassin’s alleged surveillance agent in the lobby, but this would have required expert counter surveillance skills. The surveillance agent would have been positioned to continually survey the lobby while avoiding security, conversations with staff and patrons, and especially CCTV – unless the assassins had coopted hotel staff for the job.

Fifth, ultimately, strict parking and vehicle traffic enforcement on hotel property might have prevented the assassins from using a getaway car, which might have transferred assassination risk from this hotel to another venue, thereby sparing the hotel violence, and a sullied brand name.

Lastly, hand wand magnetometers and walk through metal detectors are prudent security measures to apply in hotels in regions beset by violence. Luggage scanners are, too. To be sure, these measures are unsightly and might seem intrusive to hotel patrons, but they can be decisively effective. Well beyond assassination detection, these measures could – if properly applied – prevent an assassination scenario like the one that occurred at the Tijuana Marriott.

Having said that, if a reckless assassin wanted to barge into a hotel and kill regardless of the circumstances, alert armed guards might be the only solution.

At any rate, hotels can hone counter-violence methods by knowing the methods of violent actors and then taking steps to counter them. Sometimes, this might require blast resistant windows, more highly trained security staff, and physical barriers, all of which cost money. Other times, increasing security might just require a simple change of technique, such as enforcing traffic regulations.

Sources and further reading:

Asesinan en hotel a un empresario,” El Viga, 15 July 2016.

U.S. citizen dead in Tijuana hotel attack,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, 14 July 2016.

Padre del ejecutado en el Marriot, herido se fue a EU,” El So de Tijuana, 16 July 2016.

Tiroteo en el Hotel Marriot,” El Tijuanese, 14 July 2016.

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