Gunfire erupted as we approached the vehicle. Two members of my five-man security detail shielded my body and spun me 180 degrees, tucking my head and dragging me to the armored car. It gave us cover as the other team members assembled into position. They shoved me into the backseat, while the fifth bodyguard fired back at the assailants. As the doors slammed shut, we sped in reverse down the dirt road. After some tight maneuvering, we were back to safety.
Thankfully, the bullets were blanks and this was all an exercise. I had just trained with an elite Colombian security squad, and the commander, who will remain nameless, told me gun shots are critical to a good drill. The more desensitized the bodyguards become to the sound of bullets, the less likely they are to panic in the field. “Many of these guys grew up fighting the FARC [guerrillas] in the Colombian jungle,” said the commander. “But the more exposure to live fire they get, the better.”
The commander is a British ex-pat who runs the outfit. His crew includes all types: an ex-Colombian special-forces operative, a one-time nightclub bouncer and a former schoolteacher. For many executives, celebrities, and political figures in this violence-plagued nation, the bodyguards (or, officially, “executive protection consultants”) are who to call when security can’t be left to chance. I have heard tales of the commander taking fire while driving, eluding drug-cartel roadblocks, and losing contact with his team in high-risk areas in Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico. In lesser hands — or just with worse luck—any of these situations could have been deadly.
This training tagalong was the first time I saw him in action, I met the commander in 2012, during one of my near dozen stints in Colombia. Even before watching him work, it had become obvious why he is so good at his job. It is all rooted in one of the many words of wisdom he has shared with me: “What’s important in this field," he says, "is understanding the operating environment; understanding people.”
In many ways, he seems just like anyone in this country: We have gotten tipsy together drinking the local licorice-flavored firewater and have enjoyed long Sunday lunches with his Colombian wife and friends.
But we have also attended extravagant costume parties with embassy folks and shared happy hours with his suit-and-tie colleagues. One of his pals talked with me about African politics while casually mentioning his recent trip to secure a sensitive facility from the chaos surrounding the Ebola outbreak. Nearby, the group grew rowdy while laughing about their ex-CIA and MI6 friends who recently joined the private sector.
This is his world and one that I have had the chance to walk in on occasion. It is a place where he fits perfectly, sliding effortlessly from refined socializing with the elite to busting balls with the grunts who he trusts with his life — then there is the family man who is the ideal father at home, before racing off for days or weeks to protect another big shot in Bogota or Venezuela.
It is clear that the commander understands people and his environment — at all times — in a way that few ever can. And the more time I have spent with him, the more I’ve come to realize that doing such elite work is less about knowing how to fire a weapon or drive backwards down the freeway. Sure, those are the glorious parts that make the movies — and they can be important. But the commander's biggest strength is being a human Swiss army knife, with a sense of humor and charm that can put his clients at ease, steady nerves and prepare a solid plan to get the job done. “Situational awareness and emotional intelligence," he said, "is a far greater asset than being able to fire a pistol well or kick hard.”
It is great advice for any traveler. I have always been lucky. Despite traveling through some 50 countries over the past decade — from troubled countries like Colombia and Haiti to chaotic cities like Dhaka and Addis Ababa – I have never run into any of the hairy situations that are routine for the commander. But such good fortune can also make you complacent, and hearing a pro’s advice is a good way to make sure you always stay prepared.
Hopefully, I’ll never get held up by cartel members, as the commander did in Central America. But no matter what I run into, the wisdom he has shared helps me know I’ll be as prepared as possible if turmoil erupts.