on security

A Mexican Senator's Escape Points to the Importance of Mail Screening

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
9 MINS READJun 4, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
Everyone should take a few simple steps to protect themselves and their families from package bombs.
(Bruce Stanfield/Shutterstock)
Highlights
  • While many questions remain in the case of a parcel bomb sent to a Mexican senator, the largest is why the mail of such a high-level official was not screened.
  • While politicians and large corporations clearly must take significant measures to screen their mail, even ordinary people should open their mail cautiously.
  • Simple steps can help everyone from the largest entities to the average citizen do so.

Mexican senator Citlalli Hernandez Mora was working late in her office May 29 when she opened a package containing a thick, red hardback book sent to her as a gift. As she opened the cover of the book, it triggered one of the pipe bombs contained within a hollowed-out compartment inside the weighty tome. Fortunately for the senator, the pipe bomb burst into flames instead of detonating, only burning her lightly and causing some thermal damage to the items on her desk.

The Big Picture

Criminals, terrorists and mentally disturbed individuals have sometimes sent package bombs. Past bombings such as those carried out by the Unabomber and the recent package bomber in Austin, Texas have demonstrated that not all recipients of package bombs are high-profile individuals. Because of this, everyone should take a few simple steps to protect themselves and their families from package bombs.

A video released by Mexican news outlet Milenio featured photos of the scene that showed the book on the senator's desk, revealing that the device hidden inside the book was a pipe bomb constructed from a 1-inch PVC water pipe. It also showed that one of the end caps of the pipe bomb was missing, perhaps indicating it was not well secured. Because of that, the superheated gas created by the ignition of the low-explosive mixture inside the pipe began to expand, blowing the end cap off and allowing the burning gas to escape from the pipe like a Roman candle. Also fortunately for the senator, the end cap that came off the device was the one pointing away from her body — causing most of the hot gas to shoot away from her instead of back at her. Photos also show what appears to be a second small pipe bomb inside the book. The second piece of pipe is intact, but it is unclear if that pipe bomb also lost an end cap and so releasing the gas, or if it simply failed to explode.

The device appears to have been well designed, and the firing train functioned as intended, having passed through the transport stage of the attack without detonating and then initiating the device when the book was opened. The missing end cap, however, suggests it was poorly constructed. If so, this would seem to indicate that the bombmaker copied a bomb design from instructions on the internet or another source, but was inexperienced and failed to properly execute the instructions when it came to assembling the pipe bombs.

It is, however, possible that the device functioned exactly as intended. The missing end cap does not appear in any of the photos, and perhaps it was shot across the room. But if the device was intentionally constructed without an end cap — and with the open end of the pipe pointing away from the target — it apparently was intended to frighten rather than injure or kill the senator. There does not appear to have been any shrapnel added to the device, which could also support the possibility that it was intended to frighten. While whether these small PVC pipe bombs would have killed the senator had they detonated remains unclear, they certainly had the potential to seriously injure her.

Mexican authorities have not yet released any information as to possible motives. Hernandez Mora is a 29-year-old member of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party elected in the 2018 elections to represent Mexico City. Press reports indicate that she had not received any threat prior to receiving the bomb. Visual evidence suggests some sort of statement accompanied the book, which should provide investigators with some direction.

How to Screen Mail

Perhaps the most shocking thing to me about this whole incident is that the mail of a Mexican senator was not being screened for harmful items. Clearly, politicians and government officials should have their mail screened in today's security environment. While Mexico does not face a significant jihadist threat, it does have anarchist terrorist groups and criminals who frequently attack with bombs. Because of this, business mail in Mexico should also be screened.

These security concerns are global, and not merely confined to Mexico. In the recent past we have seen parcel bomb attacks in Chile, Ecuador, France, Germany, Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States, among other places. The good news is that it only takes following a few simple steps for everyone from large entities to individuals to help protect themselves and their families from parcel bombs. The first, and most important, step is simply recognizing the existence of the threat, and that actions exist to protect against parcel bombs. This does not require becoming paranoid, but rather that mail recipients must pay attention to what they are receiving before opening it.

In general, it is a good idea to wear nitrile gloves when handling mail. Due to the threat of fentanyl and other substances, many mail carriers have begun doing so. Donning gloves is not practical for most people who receive just a few pieces of personal mail a day at their residence. But at a business, government office or large estate that receives large amounts of mail, wearing gloves makes sense.

Those who receive a significant volume of mail may also wish to provide mail screening personnel with respirators or a fume hood to protect them from potentially inhaling dangerous substances. Dedicated mail screening facilities frequently also have an X-ray machine to scan packages. High-end mail screening operations will often be located in a separate facility, and some may even have equipment to create negative pressure environments to prevent possible harmful substances from escaping the screening facility in case a package containing such material is received.

Most individuals will not need such elaborate equipment. But everyone from the largest businesses to the smallest residences should designate a person or group responsible for screening and opening mail, rather than simply allowing whichever employee or family member who happens to walk by the mailbox first to open mail. The dangers of letting just anyone in the family open mail were on full display in November 2017 when the wife of a police officer in Alameda, California was injured after opening a package bomb intended for her husband that was sent to their home. It is also a good idea for the person designated for this duty to receive some training — or at the very least, to review training materials such as this column or this Stratfor video by my colleague Fred Burton.

Many of us already receive training at work to help protect against phishing attacks. When screening letters and packages, apply the same general approach you would before opening an email with an attachment. Is this package or letter something you were expecting? Is it from someone you know? Does it lack a return address? Is it correctly addressed, or is the address oddly formatted or otherwise off? It is addressed using only a title rather than a name?

Other potential warning signs are whether the outside of the letter contains strange markings, such as "personal" or "confidential"; "fragile, handle with care"; or "rush, do not delay." While these may prove innocuous, they should serve as warning flags that the letter or package needs to be looked at more carefully before being opened.

A Checklist for Identifying Suspicious Packages

Just as it has become quite common to contact a person to ask if they sent an unexpected email with an attachment before opening it, when receiving an unexpected package, it is prudent to verify that the person listed on the return address in fact sent it to you before opening it. A simple call, text or email can quickly establish that the letter or parcel is legitimate — or it could confirm that the package is suspicious and requires further inspection. There is simply no reason to rush to open a package or letter given the potential risks.

There are other questions to ask when examining packages, such as it does it have an odd or uneven shape? Is it unusually rigid or bulky for a letter? Does it feel like there is some sort of powder or other substance in the envelope? Is there an uncommon amount of tape on the letter or package? Is it giving off a chemical smell? Is there any evidence of oil or grease stains on the box or envelope? Are there any wires protruding from the box or does it feel like there are wires, batteries or other unusual items inside the envelope? If the answer to any of these questions are yes, handle the piece of mail with care, isolate it, and call corporate security or the police as appropriate. For more on handling a suspicious package, please read this analysis.

As with many email scammers, it is also not unusual for mail bombers to attempt to entice victims to open a booby-trapped package by making a false representation that there is something valuable inside the package.

It is also important to bear in mind that some letter bombs can be well crafted and highly deceptive. Such a device will be properly and neatly addressed. It will not show telltale signs such as protruding wires, stains or strong odors. As with many email scammers, it is also not unusual for mail bombers to attempt to entice victims to open a booby-trapped package by making a false representation that there is something valuable inside the package.

In some cases, this can be accomplished by listing a jewelry or electronics company as the return address, or even by using a box from such a retailer. Bombers can sometimes offer items that have other sorts of value. For example, two package bombs were sent in February 2017 to a legislator and a journalist in Ecuador. The bombs were contained inside DVD cases labelled as offering "irrefutable proof of corruption."

Since the exterior of dangerous mail may not always bear obvious indicators of danger, it is even more important to rely on the checklist above for identifying potentially suspicious parcels. Is the item of value something you were expecting to receive? Did someone you know send it, and were you expecting to receive something? If the answer to any of these questions is no, proceed with caution.

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