Yossi and the Headhunters

In the Philippines, a country that takes second place to Colombia in the world kidnapping league, Israeli counter-terror veterans are selling security to the rich and famous



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, June 7, 2002



Posing as an anthropologist, Josef Gueta, a 46-year-old Israeli from Tel Aviv, picked his way deep into Kalinga territory in Northern Luzon in the Philippines. During his two-week foray, he defied killer tropical diseases in jungles, dared knife-edged cliffs, and, not least, risked murder by the Kalinga, former headhunters who still live outside government control by the rule of tribal law and routinely resort to revenge killings — or else by the Kalinga's allies, marauding bands of Maoist guerrillas from the anti-government New People’s Army.

Israeli security expert Yosef Gueta keeps fit by participating in a marathon in Manila (photo courtesy of Yosef Gueta)

Hired by the Filipino government in Manila, Gueta was on a mission to identify the main pockets of resistance — and their strength — among the Kalinga against a proposed dam that would have destroyed several of their hamlets and marijuana fields. “They’re sitting, drinking, and killing for sport,” recalls the tall, ruggedly handsome Israeli, “and would never bend a knee to outsiders.” On his recommendation, the Filipino government, which had been trying unsuccessfully to crush the Kalinga by force, eventually backed off the project.

His tryst with headhunters, Gueta admits, was one of his more extreme undertakings — but not by much. As head of the Philippines’ leading private security agency, Business Profiles Inc., the former police major and counterterrorism expert, who back in Israel also worked as private bodyguard for the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Goldie Hawn, can’t afford to spend too much time sitting on his hands before duty calls.

It calls a lot. Gueta’s work involves shielding Manila’s wealthiest against rampant kidnapping and assassination. In this sprawling city of 12 million, where eyesore poverty cohabits with glaring wealth, where dozens of organized kidnapping gangs pick new victims daily, and where 5,000 pesos ($100) can get you a hitman, Gueta provides the last line of defense for his clients. “People come to us,” he says, relaxing after a hard day’s work in his office in Manila’s business district behind a desk littered with resumes from aspiring Filipinos guards, “because we give them a precious thing: peaceful sleep at night.”

That, and another rare commodity in the Philippines: a well-honed, dedicated security apparatus operating on tried and tested techniques. “Filipinos consider Israelis the best security experts in the world,” says Aio Aceremo, a former journalist now working as a researcher for Gueta. “Israelis are known to have a hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach to things.” Filipinos, meanwhile, she adds, are so security-unconscious they wouldn’t think of installing a fire alarm “until after the house has burned down.”

Overseeing the work of two dozen Filipino helpers, whose tasks cover everything from intelligence gathering to surveillance to plain old sleuthing, Gueta protects power plants against sabotage and its foreign engineers against murder in NPA-controlled hinterlands; he organizes the kidnap-proof protection of high-profile businessmen or rescues others through negotiations with their captors; he ferrets out for multinationals the source of counterfeit brand-name goods flooding the Filipino market.

He also spearheads VIP-escort details “from airport to airport” for visiting celebrities, like pop idol Michael Jackson and basketball giant Shaquille O’Neal. “We babysit them to the point of feeding them pre-tasted pap,” Gueta quips.


Gueta, who set up shop in Manila in 1990 and is married to a local woman with whom he has a daughter, now runs on his reputation as a top security specialist, providing protection for several members of the Filipino financial and political elite, including former President Joseph Estrada when he was still in power.

Kalinga tribesmen, erstwhile headhunters who remain formidable foes to their enemies, in their traditional outfit in northern Luzon island (photo: PTA)

He maintains a countrywide network of paid informants and trained local guards, which enables him to anticipate kidnappings in Manila as well as New People’s Army ambushes against his multinational clients in rural areas by dispatching rapid-response teams trained in Israeli combat techniques.

His informant network is so effective, Gueta says, that mere hours after the extremist Muslim separatist group Abu Sayyaf operating in the southern Philippines grabbed headlines worldwide on April 23 last year by kidnapping 12 tourists from the Malaysian island resort of Sipadan, he already knew the exact identities of the kidnappers. “In Israel, where we deal with red-alert security situations almost daily, we’re all security experts," Gueta explains. “I’m just exporting what I learned at home to the Filipinos.”

He is not the only exporter. Arie Rozenberg, 40, a well-built bearded bear of a man, served in a special army unit in Lebanon in 1982, then as a police officer in Gaza during the first intifada. Later he joined a police task force on drugs and organized crime in Tel Aviv. In 1999, he came to Manila on a stint as a consultant for a local security agency. Business has been too good to leave it. A year ago, Rozenberg set up his own agency, Makabi Security, specializing in VIP protection and training as Gueta’s associate.

“My job is to help people learn to live with their fears,” he says. Several of his wealthy Filipino clients dread kidnappers so much, he explains, that the husband and wife would never ride in the same car and keep four-five houses to sleep in at random. “Look!” says Rozenberg’s Canadian Jewish wife and partner, Phyllis, holding out a forearm in the garden of their house in a barbed wire-rimmed, heavily guarded upscale residential “village” of Manila. “I get goose bumps just thinking about it. It’s almost like life is worth nothing here.”

Arie Rozenberg’s clients aren’t just being paranoid. The Philippines is the second country in the world behind Colombia for kidnappings, with 220 reported abductions last year, and probably many more going unreported as victims often prefer not to call the police. It’s safer not to. Policemen reportedly often moonlight as kidnappers so that frightened citizens have to rely increasingly on private body and security guards for protection.

A gun enthusiast in Manila looks for a new weapon (photo: Getty images)

There are at least 2,000 registered security agencies in Manila alone, whose handgun and rifle-toting guards watch over entrances to hotels, supermarkets, movie theatres, nightclubs, even 7-eleven outlets. Trigger-happy Filipinos see their guns as personal accessories, much like cellphones; signs in nightclubs request patrons to “kindly leave their firearms outside.”

What with all the great demand, fly-by-night operators recruit guards right off the street, often strapping guns on them without a single shooting practice. Not so Rozenberg. He drills his Filipino men and women (100 and counting) in martial arts, criminology, psychology, and crime prevention, at times by flying in an extra security expert from Israel to help do the training. “Sometimes bodyguards on the take sell their clients out to kidnappers,” he notes. “My guys will protect a VIP all the way, even taking a bullet for him.”

Hopefully, though, there won’t be a need for taking bullets. Using vintage Israeli methods, Rozenberg protects his targeted clients — routinely threatened by professional kidnappers with a note “Pay up, or die!” tied with a signature black ribbon — in a way that would befit a head of state. He secures routes, employs decoy vehicles, and quarters his protégées in safe houses.

That kind of security doesn’t come cheap. The price for all of this: $2,000-plus a day. But it’s not just for the money that he and Gueta are in the business, they both insist. Says Gueta: “Sometimes in kidnapping cases, I don’t charge a sentimo. I consider it my duty-bound honor to help. It’s the adrenalin rush that keeps me awake and going.”


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