Security leadership in an evolving role
Eric Vélez-Villar started at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at 19 while living in Puerto Rico.
“At the time, I was a mail and file clerk, which is one of the lower ranks of the FBI,” he says, “but I was super excited to be part of the FBI.”
Vélez-Villar went on to become a Computer Specialist in the FBI before becoming a Special Agent in 1992 and transferring to South Texas.
As a Special Agent, Vélez-Villar investigated drug trafficking, public corruption and violent crime. His career, like many government officials, took a turn following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when Vélez-Villar was transferred to the counterterrorism program.
“Everything shifted then, so a lot of people that were working drug cases became counterterrorism agents overnight. The counterterrorism threat landscape would change from more sophisticated, long-term attack plans — like against a 9/11 style event — to defending against smaller, less coordinated attacks,” Vélez-Villar says.
The career changes didn’t end there, as the FBI as a whole shifted its focus.
“With the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which brought the FBI into taking a more active role as an intelligence agency, we went from being a traditional criminal law enforcement role to a dual-mission agency working closely with our partners at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence community agencies,” Vélez-Villar says.
“In 2008, I was assigned to be the Special Agent in Charge in Los Angeles over the intelligence program there. I became fully dedicated to promoting the program and I did that until 2016, which is when I retired,” Vélez-Villar says.
Vélez-Villar notes the shift into intelligence as one of the largest pivots in his career as a special agent. With intelligence came the rise of technology and cyber threats. Despite years of computer specialist experience, Vélez-Villar says he didn’t feel fully prepared.
“My father was a military police officer, my grandfather was a police officer from Puerto Rico, and his father was a police officer. I think public service has always been in my blood.”
— Eric Vélez-Villar
“Computer crime wasn’t a big thing at that time,” he says in reference to his previous experience. “Most people didn’t have cell phones. It definitely wasn't like it is today were cybersecurity is a massive issue.”
Vélez-Villar worked hard to learn as new threats developed alongside developing technology.
After retirement, Vélez-Villar moved into the private sector, becoming Head of Security for the Parks and Resorts Segment of The Walt Disney Company (Disney). His role at Disney encompassed all of the theme parks, cruise ships, hotels and stores attached to the Disney name. Pre-pandemic, Disney attractions were pulling in over 100 million visitors annually, meaning Velez-Villar was navigating a wide range of risks.
“I ended my special agent career on Friday and on Monday, I’m in Burbank working for The Walt Disney Company,” Vélez-Villar says.
The shift from the government to a for-profit company was a big one.
“The primary mission isn't security, instead, the mission is to drive revenue and drive growth. You’re no longer the most important program in the room,” Vélez-Villar says. “There’s this requirement of doing a lot more with a lot less.”
In the FBI, Vélez-Villar recalls how everyone around him was working towards stronger security. But in the private sector, he faced the challenge of having to work align security with the needs of other departments. Departments focused on ticket sales or guest experience, for example, had an entirely different goal than the security department.
A few years later, Vélez-Villar returned to the FBI as Assistant Director of the Office of the Private Sector. It combined his experience as a Special Agent and as Head of Security for The Walt Disney Company’s parks and resorts.
“We’re the strategic arm of the FBI when it comes to how the FBI engages with its private-sector partners,” Vélez-Villar says. His work focuses on developing strong partnerships between the agency and private sector businesses across critical infrastructure, energy, retail and a number of other sectors to build a resilient national security strategy.
Reflecting on his current role and career across the FBI and Disney, Vélez-Villar says he’s proud to have followed in the footsteps of his family and dedicated his life to public service, and to work alongside some of the best minds in investigation and national security.
“I don't think there’s anything greater than serving your country,” Vélez-Villar says. “My father was a military police officer, my grandfather was a police officer from Puerto Rico, and his father was a police officer. I think public service has always been in my blood. To be able to work every day with the men and women of the FBI is what I’m most proud of.”