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Retail Security South of the Border

​ENSURING SAFETY and security in a high-traffic retail environment like a supermarket or department store is no small task. Imagine doing it at more than 500 locations in a country riddled with government corruption and torn apart by a bloody drug war, and you have the challenge faced by Lt. Col. Gaona Rosete (Mexican Army, retired) when he joined Mexico’s Organización Soriana roughly three years ago.

Soriana, as it’s known to the shopping public, is the second-largest retailer in Mexico (the first being U.S.-based Wal-Mart). The company employs about 80,000 people and has stores, many of them 24/7 operations, located throughout the country, including in war-torn border areas and where maras, which are Central American street gangs, like to hijack store delivery trucks.

Rosete, the company’s head of security and loss prevention, spoke about the security challenges at the International Threats and Transnational Crime Conference, held recently in Alexandria, Virginia, by ASIS International’s Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime Council.

Rosete and his executive staff of just five people take an intelligence-based approach, he explained. They use shaded risk maps that categorize the different threats found in the various regions. The maps help his team track what’s happening. The data comes from private intelligence vendors like Stratfor, as well as a limited number of trusted local sources for intelligence, which are not easy to come by in a culture such as Mexico’s. Some sources may be government officials, but more often they are private sector peers, such as store security managers knowledgeable about local situations.

The unique environment in which the company operates compelled Rosete to focus only on threats that might substantively affect the fundamental operations of stores, he said. For example, gunfights outside stores might affect traffic into a store, but not its operation. Another example is what is called a “pickup.” As opposed to a kidnap for ransom, armed members of a drug gang will enter a store and abduct a member of a rival gang. A crime? Yes. Unsettling? Yes. But will it force Soriana to close a store? No.

Even after incidents of violent crime, Rosete said, the company has instituted a new policy under which the store remains open but the immediate crime scene is closed off to customers. While an audience member noted that law enforcement would not allow that north of the border, Rosete said it is not only possible but critical for business in Mexico because of the pace of local police investigations.

“They’re not in a hurry, and you’re losing money. They go around, they get some coffee. They wait for the press to come. That’s true,” Rosete said.

In terms of traditional security measures, the company employs a force of roughly 5,000 uniformed security guards, some of whom patrol store parking areas in vehicles. Stores also have reinforced entrances to protect against vehicle-based smash-and-grab robberies, which are a common problem.

In addition to his military background, Rosete has both business and law degrees and before joining Soriana, he had experience at a handful of multinational corporations, including Nokia Siemens Network and British American Tobacco. Despite his military roots, Rosete does not seek security specialists from among military veterans. Instead, he tries to hire from within. Among the reasons: Rosete wants to build a culture of security across the company as opposed to establishing security in a cultural silo. Facility and sales managers will understand security, and security managers will understand the business of retailing.

“We’re here to support business. We’re trying to be more focused on business security, and how we can align with the company’s strategy,” he told conference attendees.

Another reason Rosete hires from among the company’s nonsecurity personnel is they come without preconceptions, and they are open to novel approaches, he said. “What we found is that the less they know of security, their common sense is stronger. So what we’ve tried to do is promote people from the inside because they’re not biased about how to do things, and we teach them new stuff.”

Despite the culture of corruption that exists in the country, Rosete said problems of corruption among staff are limited. He has found ways to counter some such problems when they arise. For example, drug gangs had enlisted store security guards as “hawks,” who would call gangs via cellular phone to alert them when police or army convoys passed and were en route to their turf. Soriana solved the problem by forbidding use of cell phones by guards on duty.

Soriana tries to prevent corruption of management at individual stores, especially in security, through elevated pay. While no company can reduce crime to zero, Rosete noted that there has not been a single homicide in a Soriana store since he launched his program.