WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT BELOW
The city of Culiacán descended into terror on Thursday, as Mexican state security forces battled the Sinaloa Cartel, once led by drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. As soldiers and police launched a raid to capture one of the heirs to El Chapo’s throne, the cartel hit back with military-grade weapons — and won.
Mexican officials briefly detained Ovidio Guzman, one of Guzman’s sons who has emerged as a leading figure in the cartel after his father was arrested in 2016. But in response the cartel freed dozens of prisoners from a local jail, set numerous vehicles alight and turned the city into a war zone. Soon, Mexican authorities released Guzman.
Security Minister Alfonso Durazo told Reuters that Guzman was released to protect lives, with reports indicating the cartel took eight government soldiers hostage, as a bargaining chip to secure Guzman’s release.
At least eight people were killed, including five suspected gang members, in the city of nearly 1 million people in Sinaloa state.
The decision to detain and then free one of Mexico’s most wanted drug traffickers — who has also been indicted by the U.S. Justice Department — was a humiliation for Mexico’s government, revealing how entrenched the country’s leading drug cartel remains, even after the arrest of El Chapo.
Adding to this humiliation, the government was forced to back track, after its initial tale of how the mayhem unfolded was ridiculed.
In a video statement Thursday, top Mexican security officials had initially described how agents came under attack by armed men from a house, while the agents were on a patrol in Culiacán.
“The personnel fired back and took control of the house, in which they found four occupants. During that action, one of them was identified as Ovidio Guzmán López,” said Alfonso Durazo, Mexico’s secretary of public security.
“This resulted in various groups of organized crime groups who surrounded the house with a greater firepower than that of the patrol. In addition, other groups carried out violent actions against residents in various parts of the city, creating panic.”
Experts, however, soon poured scorn on this version of events.
“My suspicion is that they went after him (Guzman) and they lost,” Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst in Mexico City, told the New York Times.
Then, on Friday, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador admitted that the event had not been a random incident, but rather security forces had been on a raid — they were trying to capture Guzman after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest and extradition to the U.S.
The plan was that, like his father, Ovidio Guzman would face justice in America. This plan, though, unravelled when state forces were met with a cartel just as heavily armed as the Mexican troops. Lopez Obrador was asked who had taken the decision to free the narco, and said it was his top security people.
“The officials who took this decision did well,” Lopez Obrador said, insisting the call had avoided slaughter. “We’re doing really well in our strategy.”
“Capturing a criminal can’t be worth more than people’s lives.”
Lopez Obrador has backed away from an aggressive military-led strategy to defeat the cartels, which many of his predecessors championed. He rejected criticism his government had acted weakly, hitting back Friday that the previous strategy had turned Mexico into a “graveyard.”
Defence Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval, meanwhile, lamented that the bungled capture operation had been carried out “hastily.”
Within an hour of Guzman’s apparent capture on Thursday, images began flooding social media of carnage on Culiacán’s streets. Reuters and several Mexican news outlets soon reported that the wanted criminal had been released.
Videos appeared to show heavily armed civilians firing machine guns mounted in pickup trucks. In other footage, a cartel man could be seen lying on the roadway, firing from a machine gun balanced on a tripod. The violence had erupted Thursday at around 3.30 p.m. local time and by 9 p.m., it was still going.
Another video on social media purported to show inmates running through the streets, forcing drivers out of their cars. Sinaloa public security director Cristóbal Castañeda told Milenio television that between 20 and 30 prisoners had escaped a local jail during the operation, though some had been recaptured.
“They’re freeing them,” exclaims a woman in one video. “We can’t leave here.”
Improvised roadblocks were constructed, vehicles were set on fire, and some people sprinted through the streets, holding their children to make it from one building to another to avoid gunfire.
As evening fell, government officials were warning residents not to venture into certain parts of the city.
“In my 21 years of covering crime at the heart of drug world, this has been the worst shootout and the most horrible situation I have ever encountered,” Ernesto Martínez, a local crime reporter who witnessed the mayhem, told the New York Times.
He said he was reporting on a different shooting when he saw that an army vehicle had stopped a car full of gunmen. A shootout began between these two groups. Then, he said he saw a separate vehicle of masked men that began firing at the soldiers. A first shootout spanned 20 minutes; a second lasted four hours, he said.
“The sound of the bullets was so strong, I could almost smell the gunpowder,” he told the Times.
Culiacán in northwestern Mexico is the stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel, where the organization has ample support and firepower — as demonstrated Thursday.
The cartel has remained the largest organized crime group in the country for nearly three decades and continues to be the most prominent cartel across major parts of the country. But its biggest rival, the New Generation Cartel of Jalisco, is growing fast and has been expanding its territory across Mexico, seeking to fill the void El Chapo left.
Since the capture of El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel has been led primarily by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and El Chapo’s sons Jesús Alfredo Guzmán and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán.
In February, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed an indictment against two more of El Chapo’s sons, Ovidio and Joaquín Guzmán López for “knowingly, intentionally, and willfully” distributing drugs to be exported into the United States. They would have to be extradited to the United States to face trial on those charges.
During El Chapo’s trial in New York this year, prosecutors said the sons had played a role in facilitating their father’s escape in 2015 from a maximum-security prison in Almoloya, Mexico.
El Mayo has long remained an elusive figure who, unlike El Chapo, has remained largely out of the spotlight. There have been reported tensions between the leader and the two Guzmán sons in recent months.
Drugs continue to flow into the United States unabated as the Sinaloa cartel has ramped up its production of methamphetamines and fentanyl.
Gladys McCormick, a security analyst at Syracuse University, said in a statement that Mexico resembled a nation in “the throes of war.”
“What is incontrovertible is that the Sinaloa Cartel won yesterday’s battle,” she told Reuters. “Not only did they get the government to release Ovidio, they demonstrated to the citizens of Culiacán as well as the rest of Mexico who is in control.”
Mexico’s 2019 murder tally is on track to surpass last year’s record total of more than 29,000.
— With files from the New York Times