The South American Security Tour

Sept. 15, 2006

I just returned from approximately two weeks in Peru, and while I was there for a little R&R, I can never seem to take off my security hat. While most of my time was spent in rural areas slinging a camera and enjoying the natural wonders of the Incans, I couldn’t help but bump into a bit of "security" along the way, so I want to share some observations:

1) Security lines are better than ever. I flew out on Labor Day weekend, a pretty popular weekend as far as flying goes, but TSA security lines seemed faster than ever at the Atlanta airport. I chalk it up to more checked luggage as people are putting items like hair gels and shampoo bottles into their checked luggage, and only bringing the on-plane essentials through the passenger lines.

2) New technologies aren’t the through-put problems many thought they would be. The TSA security checkpoint for Miami’s Terminal A is using one of GE’s "Puffer" machines that dislodges particles from skin and clothing and tests those particles for contraband. While the machines get a wary eye from children and new users, I was able to compare the time of the puffer line to the non-puffer security line. Incredibly, the two lines moved along at close to the same rate, despite the fact that it took the machine approximately 20 seconds to process individuals. What seemed to be happening was that the machines took advantage of "dead time" people stood in line waiting to get their bags through the X-ray systems and used that time to process them for explosives.

3) Air security isn’t yet standard. Also at the Miami Airport, I went through the security lines a few times. On two out of the four times, my shoes went through the X-ray, but not the others, despite the fact that I was wearing the same pair of sneakers. Let’s make a decision and stick to it. TSA screeners don’t need a guessing game – they need clear policies and standards.

4) Some airports have a lot of catching up to do. Three out of the four airports I journeyed through had great security. Number four (which shall remain anonymous because of the obvious implications) was a hazard waiting to happen, despite the fact that it was an international airport. Without going too deeply, let’s just say that the border between "secured" and "unsecured" was a joke. Any manner of prohibited substances and items could have been freely passed between the different areas, and worse, there was not a single camera monitoring that weak point.

5) Hotel security is what you make of it. At one hotel, I had the pleasure of chatting with an armed Wackenhut guard decked in full body protection. This incidentally was at a rural hotel, where I was one of only 10 guests for the two nights I was there. At a busy hotel in Lima – which catered toward Americans and Europeans and which saw travelers arriving at all hours of the night, and which was in a convenient yet crime-laden portion of the city -- security was practically non-existent. The outcome of that was that I spent some time thinking about the need to develop an international system for ranking the security of hotels which could be used by corporate security directors, travel agents, business travelers and anyone else interested in their personal welfare.

6) Car-jacking continues to persist. My friend and guide kept a knife with a six-inch blade strapped for ready use to defend his SUV. We never faced a car-jacking, but this is the reality that corporate business travelers continue to face today. Your facility in Denver may be great at protecting employees, but how well can you manage their security when they are overseas?

7) South American cash-handling crews are a study in efficiency. Relaxing at a café, I was able to watch the methodical processes of two crews from two different companies running their mid-day routes. I found this interesting because had published articles recently of how cash-handling vehicles have been struck around the world. These Peruvian cash-handling guards were faced with unique challenges including 1) high vehicular traffic, 2) a great volume of pedestrian traffic, 3) access only from a car-packed curb, and 4) a random protest/march occurring on the same street. Guns drawn and with a two-person tarry that covered their exposure constantly until they were safely inside the cash vans, these cash-handling details were beautiful to watch, though not nearly as impressive as the Andean Condor.