Over the years, the reassuring whistle of a vigilant chowkidar has been replaced by panic buttons and gun-toting guards. House walls used to be covered with broken glass to deter intruders, but barbed wire is now commonly found at upscale residences.
Since 9/11, security firms have opened up shop in major cities, and over a hundred have been registered in the past three years. According to estimates, at least 600 security companies exist, though many of them are non-functional.
There is obviously a demand for private security, due to deteriorating security conditions, an increase in kidnapping and extortion threats and, above all, the lack of faith in law enforcement agencies. Zims Security’s Noman Zafar estimates that the number of security guards in Karachi is twice that of police officials.
“The law and order situation isn’t improving, so the security business is growing,” says retired military officer Col Syed M Mazhar, who is the regional director for Sindh and Balochistan for Wackenhut Pakistan, a big player in the private security business.
While private security firms, such as the Phoenix Group (earlier known as Brink’s) have been around since the 1980s, the post-9/11 years have witnessed considerable growth in the industry.
“When we started out in the early 1990s, we only had a few companies as clients,” says Zafar. “But after 2000, the security business grew rapidly. It’s only now that the security business is being taken seriously as an industry.”
Even though many of the security firms appear to be small, low-level outfits, upscale, established organisations are a force to be reckoned with. Wackenhut Pakistan’s control room could rival that of a law enforcement agency — employees monitor the tracking systems of vehicles, respond to house calls, keep an eye on the headlines and liaise with law enforcement agencies, employees and response teams to understand the situation in the city. The latter approach is for a service provided to clients: Wackenhut provides security assessments of the region, in the form of weekly and daily situation updates. “There is a review and analysis of the situation. For example, if a strike has been called, we assess what impact it would have on the city, the group’s history, the success of previous strikes, etc.”
These services come at a hefty price, but then the clients have deep pockets — embassies and consulates, foreign non-governmental organisations, multinationals, banks, telecom giants and industrialists have sought the services of these security firms.
On your guard
Even though the security business has proliferated, it has come with a number of disadvantages. Security guards have been found complicit in bank robberies — including the country’s largest known robbery of Rs311 million at Askari Bank in Karachi, as well as in cases of household theft.
Samina Waheed, a homemaker, has employed the services of Phoenix (earlier known as Brinks) since 1996. “When we moved to DHA we preferred to have a security system as opposed to guards. We feel much more secure. Whenever an issue arises, we complain and they respond instantly. It’s been 15 years and the experience has been great.”
When asked why she didn’t opt for hiring guards, Waheed said: “There are a lot of expenses involved with guards — food, housing them, salaries — and we hate guns, so we did not want to have guards around. You also can’t trust guards — who knows who they’re involved with?”
Firms are mostly staffed or run by retired military officials. Executives say these employees are not only trained, but also have a good work ethic. “I raid the army of officers who were passed over for promotion,” quips Wackenhut Pakistan Chairman and defence analyst Ikram Sehgal.
Security firms say it boils down to the verification of the guards hired. According to Mazhar, “This is where companies try to cut costs. We do a three-step process: guards are verified by the National Database and Registration Authority, the police and by our own representatives. We also do not deploy guards at banks who have not been in service for at least six months.”
There are frequent spot checks on locations to assess conditions and performance. Wackenhut Pakistan also has a tiered process of supervision and monitoring. “We’ve realised that we have suffered for even slight slips in the standard operating procedures, which occur once in a blue moon,” says Sehgal.
Verification is essential but, beyond that, a lot also depends on how clients interact with security guards deployed to protect them. “The problem is with banks who engage their guards in duties they’re not supposed to do — like handling piles of cash. If you’re going to wave Rs50,000 around a man who earns Rs7,000, you know what’s going to happen. It’s human instinct,” says Zafar.
A common perception is that anyone in a uniform with a gun is a ‘trained guard’, but security experts such as Sehgal believe that very few firms actually provide training to the guards. “You can’t take a man off the street and give him a gun,” he said. “You’re playing with danger.”
The number of training schools are few and far in between. While Wackenhut Pakistan has its own training school and provides refresher training to guards and supervisors alike, Zims has a three-day training course and also refers employees for training at the All Pakistan Security Agencies Association’s (APSAA) training school. However, the school can only train up to 20 people at a time.
In the event that complaints are received about guards, they are investigated and then dismissed, if found guilty. Criminal charges are pressed only if the complainants want to pursue legal action. Zafar points out that security companies have assisted the police in tracking down employees involved in theft. “Information about the guards who robbed Askari Bank was provided by the security firm; otherwise the police would have never been able to catch them.”
Security firms maintain a constant liaison with law enforcement agencies. The website for the APSAA also features a page of ‘blacklisted employees’, with their bio data and alleged crime. At the same time, Col (retd) Islam, the APSAA’s honorary secretary, says it’s unfair to stereotype guards. “There are guards who have given their lives for their companies. The clients who treat guards well — offering them extra pay and medical facilities — their guards go beyond the call of duty.”
It’s not just the guards who need to be checked and verified — security companies themselves are scrutinised extensively before their registration. According to information presented in the Senate this year, documentation is first scrutinised by the ministry of interior (MoI) for the issuance of a no-objection certificate. After the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan registers the company, the interior ministry checks that all requirements have been met. Details of the proposed directors are then sent for clearance to the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau, the ministry of defence and the Special Branch. The documentation is then approved by a committee which has representatives from the interior ministry and the Federal Investigation Agency.
“There’s so much scrutiny,” Zafar says, “It isn’t easy for anyone to open a security company. Of course, in the case of some retired military officers they may have connections that help them with the process.”
However, the All Pakistan Security Agencies Association complains that the police delay the verification of guards, leading to a one-year backlog. Security firms also complain that the lack of proper training and adequate arms is problematic. According to APSAA, guards are only allowed to carry a 12-bolt gun, whereas robbers use AK-47s. “Since banks are insured against robberies, they prefer that the guards don’t fire at robbers. The 12-bolt gun has a spread and so it can harm bystanders. Banks don’t want to risk customers being injured.”
While security is of paramount concern to these organisations, some clients try to cut corners. “A lot of companies, such as banks, don’t update their CCTV systems,” says Zafar. “When we provide an assessment of the area and recommend a number of guards, they’ll want to cut down the number. A factory spread on two acres only had one guard — the rest of the area was open.”
The role of the APSAA
APSAA is trying to represent the concerns of security agencies, working as a lobbyist of sorts. One key demand, for example, was that security guards not be allowed to unionise, which the government has agreed to. “We’re against it because of the sensitive nature of this work,” Col (retd) Tauqirul Islam, the association’s honorary secretary, told The Express Tribune Magazine. “Look at the havoc created by union workers during protests. Now imagine this with our guards who have licenced weapons!”
The operation of security firms is governed by provincial ordinances, as well as one for the Islamabad Capital Territory. The senate’s website states that “In order to ensure monitoring of the private security companies, periodical inspections are carried out by the respective illaqa Magistrates Sub-Divisional Magistrates with the help of police authorities.”
While security firms say there are no issues with the laws, it is the implementation that’s an issue. Says Sehgal: “It is dependent on the integrity of the person doing the inspection.”
The security industry has received some major blows in the past decade, particularly by rumours that organisations are working with foreign intelligence agencies or as covers for foreign security firms. According to APSAA, security agencies are not allowed to work with foreign security companies or employ foreigners.
In 2009, as rumours spread about the presence of the notorious security firm Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) in Pakistan, the Islamabad offices of the InterRisk security company were raided. InterRisk was contracted to provide services to the US Embassy in Islamabad. According to news reports published at the time, the firm was raided because it had allegedly obtained weapons that private security companies are prohibited from acquiring.
The suspicions have led, according to Sehgal, organisations to become extremely cautious. He said his company has to bend over backwards to clear any suspicion about their work, since they handle security for foreign missions and high-profile non-governmental organisations.
Security firms and clients alike are also deeply concerned about hiring and deploying guards. Concerns have risen after the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer at the hands of a member of the Elite Force squad protecting him. His daughter Sara Taseer Shoaib later posted images on Twitter of her family with her late father’s guards, saying “False security with this deadly force” and “Putting my baby at risk with deadly guards who murdered my father”.
APSAA says it has developed a pro forma psychological test of sorts for hiring guards, which was developed with the assistance of army psychologists. They hope that measures like these will prevent a repeat of the Qadri episode.
“You have to know your guards and you have to treat them well,” says Sehgal. “If you don’t know who they are, what their lives are like, you can’t depend on them. One of the major mistakes people make is that they have no personal interaction with the guards.”
“Guards are not considered as human beings,” says Zafar. “Forget about shade — at some places they don’t even offer water to guards. We’ve had to refuse clients because we know this is how they treat guards. It is also our responsibility as a company to ensure good working conditions.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 10th, 2011.