The Washington Post
MEXICO CITY - Mexican authorities briefly detained the son of jailed drug kingpin JoaquĂn â€śEl Chapoâ€ť GuzmĂˇn - and then released the younger GuzmĂˇn back to one of the worldâ€™s most powerful drug cartels after gunmen took to the streets.
The events Thursday were a remarkable display of the stateâ€™s inability to take on organized crime. President AndrĂ©s Manuel LĂłpez Obrador explained Friday that El Chapoâ€™s son Ovidio GuzmĂˇn LĂłpez was released â€śto protect the lives of the peopleâ€ť after the cartel deployed across Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, and neighboring towns, taking over key highways.
Residents took videos of the chaos in the city, while Mexicans across the country watched online, a live-streamed glimpse into the cartelâ€™s ability to overwhelm the state. The gunmen carried military-grade weapons and sent convoys of trucks into the city streets.
Ovidio GuzmĂˇn emerged as a leading figure in the cartel after his father was arrested in 2016. But as the members of the cartel took to the streets, apparently freeing dozens of prisoners and turning the city into an urban war zone, Mexican authorities decided to release him.
LĂłpez Obrador confirmed that the security forces had attempted to arrest GuzmĂˇn using an arrest warrant that would lead to his extradition to the United States. He would not say whether the arrest was solicited directly by the Trump administration.
â€śWe donâ€™t want victims. We donâ€™t want a war,â€ť LĂłpez Obrador said at a news conference, explaining that GuzmĂˇnâ€™s release was reflective of his administrationâ€™s strategy not to use force against the countryâ€™s major criminal organizations.
The decision to detain and then almost immediately release one of Mexicoâ€™s most wanted drug traffickers - who was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department in February - was a shocking display of weakness for Mexicoâ€™s government, revealing how entrenched the countryâ€™s leading drug cartel remains, even after the arrest of El Chapo. It prompted widespread concern that Mexicoâ€™s drug cartels would be emboldened by the governmentâ€™s failure, potentially leading to even more violence.
â€śIt is a defeat of the country. It is a defeat of the administration of AndrĂ©s Manuel LĂłpez Obrador. It is a defeat of the very dubious strategy of pacification that he defends,â€ť wrote columnist Carlos Loret de Mola in El Universal.
In a video statement, top officials from Mexicoâ€™s security agencies described how agents came under attack by armed men from a house while on patrol.
â€śThe 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 GuzmĂˇn LĂłpez,â€ť said Security Minister Alfonso Durazo. â€śThis 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.â€ť
LĂłpez Obrador contradicted that account, saying that security forces were intentionally seeking to arrest GuzmĂˇn when they came under fire. Mexican forces had badly misjudged the strength of the cartelâ€™s response to the detention of one of its leaders.
Within minutes, the scale of that misjudgment became clear. The cartel outmanned and outgunned Mexican security forces across Culiacan. For those watching the torrent of cellphone videos and following the governmentâ€™s convoluted response, there was a clear takeaway: The Sinaloa cartel had won, and the Mexican government had lost.
Videos circulating on social media appeared to show heavily armed civilians firing machine guns mounted in pickup trucks.
Sinaloaâ€™s public security director, CristĂłbal CastaĂ±eda, told Milenio television that between 20 and 30 prisoners had escaped during the operation, although some had been recaptured.
Another video on social media purported to show inmates running through the streets, forcing drivers out of their cars.
â€śTheyâ€™re freeing them,â€ť exclaims a woman in one video. â€śWe canâ€™t leave here.â€ť
By 9 p.m., the fighting appeared ongoing. Improvised roadblocks were constructed with vehicles set on fire. Some people sprinted through the streets holding their children to make it from one building to another to avoid gunfire.
Government officials warned residents not to venture into certain parts of the city.
Culiacan in northwestern Mexico is the stronghold of the Sinaloa cartel and where the organization has ample support and firepower - demonstrated Thursday across that city. After GuzmĂˇnâ€™s release, residents sympathetic to the cartel celebrated their victory over government forces in a flurry of WhatsApp messages.
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. 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 â€śEl Mayoâ€ť Zambada and El Chapoâ€™s sons JesĂşs Alfredo GuzmĂˇn and IvĂˇn Archivaldo GuzmĂˇn.
In February, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment against two more of El Chapoâ€™s sons, Ovidio GuzmĂˇn and JoaquĂn GuzmĂˇn LĂłpez, for â€śknowingly, intentionally, and willfullyâ€ť 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 Chapoâ€™s trial in New York this year, prosecutors said the sons had played a role in facilitating their fatherâ€™s escape in 2015 from a maximum-security prison in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico.
El Mayo has long remained an elusive figure who, unlike El Chapo, has stayed largely out of the spotlight. There have been reported tensions between the leader and the two GuzmĂˇn 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.
LĂłpez Obrador has backed away from an aggressive military-led strategy to defeat the cartels, which many of his predecessors championed.
On Friday, he rejected claims that the failed operation would embolden the countryâ€™s drug cartels.
â€śCanâ€™t value the capture of a criminal more than the lives of people,â€ť he said.