MEXICO CITY—Adolfo Lagos loved to bike with friends and colleagues on the rural fringes of Mexico City. Friends say it was the MIT and Stanford trained executive’s way of working off the stress from his job as vice president of media giant Grupo Televisa.
In November, he was fatally shot when two assailants tried to steal his bicycle while he was riding on a road north of the capital, his two bodyguards trailing him in their SUV.
Mr. Lagos is the most prominent executive to fall victim to a wave of violence that has claimed more than 26,000 lives this year. The killing was particularly shocking in a country where the wealthy, often protected by armored cars and bodyguards, are usually safe from violent crime.
But the case took a further twist when investigators in the State of Mexico, where the incident occurred, said they believed Mr. Lagos was accidentally shot by his own bodyguards trying to protect him from the assailants.
The 69-year-old Mr. Lagos was caught in the crossfire between the attackers and the bodyguards, who fired their 9mm weapons from the armored SUV some yards away, Alejandro Gómez, the state’s chief prosecutor, told local radio.
A suspect in the robbery was detained last week and has been charged with attempted homicide and theft. A warrant has been issued for the arrest of another suspect.
Mr. Lagos’ bodyguards, whose identities haven’t been publicly disclosed, are cooperating with the investigation, according to Mr. Gómez, the state prosecutor. They couldn’t be reached for comment.
The incident has fueled concerns that mounting security problems are becoming a major obstacle to development and investment in Mexico. But Mr. Lagos’ death has also shed light on the visible yet often-ignored work of bodyguards.
Despised by motorists because of their aggressive driving, they can often be seen standing guard outside posh restaurants or boutiques in upscale districts of Mexico City.
Many double as personal assistants, in breach of basic security protocols, experts say.
“Sometimes you see them helping with grocery bags or taking children to the disco,” and that can result in significant distractions, said Roberto Rivera, president of the Mexican Association of Private Security Companies.
There are an estimated 177,000 private security guards registered with state and federal authorities, although officials say there are thousands more operating in the underground economy.
Many hire former military officers who are legally permitted to carry weapons, authorities say. So-called complementary police units run by state governments also offer private security services with little supervision. Others are poorly trained.
“It’s a very serious problem and it’s only the tip of the iceberg,” said Luis Esteban Islas, head of planning and private security at the government’s National Security Commission. He is seeking to update federal verification and training standards for bodyguards, including first aid skills, weapons handling, driving techniques and crisis management.
The Irish rock band U2 refused to play in Mexico for almost a decade after bodyguards for the sons of then-President Ernesto Zedillo seriously injured the band’s head of security when his team refused to let the sons go backstage in the late 1990s.
Two traffic incidents infuriated the public in 2016 after videos recorded by bystanders went viral on social media. The protagonists were dubbed “Lord Ferrari” and “Lord Rolls-Royce,” referring to the owners of the luxury vehicles whose bodyguards jumped out of their escort cars to assault motorists and clear lanes for their bosses.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a good reputation in Mexico,” said Ivan Ivanovich, a veteran secret service officer from the former Yugoslavia who runs security firm AGS Group in Mexico City. “Most bodyguards act in a completely reactive manner and tend to solve problems with their weapons. That makes you an enemy of prevention.”
In Mexico’s capital, authorities set up checkpoints to crack down on bodyguards after establishing stricter rules for security contractors last year. They have detained 91 unlicensed bodyguards and seized close to 100 weapons. Security escorts are now required to drive marked cars to bolster accountability.
“The lack of control and regulations for bodyguards sparked social exasperation because of driving incidents or fights outside restaurants and even high schools,” said Hiram Almeida, Mexico City’s police chief. “That’s why we determined that it was time to regulate them.”
Colleagues said Mr. Lagos shunned escort vehicles and preferred to have more discreet armed drivers. He had a longstanding relationship with his bodyguards.
A Televisa official said the bodyguards weren’t contracted by the company. The salary of at least one of them was paid for by the Mexican unit of Spain’s Banco Santander to an undisclosed contractor, as part of Mr. Lagos’ retirement package when he left the bank in 2013 to join Televisa. The bank declined to provide additional details.
Although they could face manslaughter charges once the investigation is concluded, forensic evidence and testimony showed the guards tried to defend their boss and that there was no intention to kill Mr. Lagos, Mr. Gómez said.
The main reason for his death, he said, was “lack of expertise.”
Corrections & Amplifications
Hiram Almeida is Mexico City’s police chief. An earlier version of this article misspelled his surname as Almeyda. (Dec. 28, 2017)
Write to Santiago Pérez at email@example.com
Appeared in the December 29, 2017, print edition as ‘Mexico’s Army of Bodyguards Draws Scrutiny.’