MEXICO CITY — Mexican authorities briefly detained the son of jailed drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — and then released the younger Guzmán back to one of the world’s most powerful drug cartels after gunmen took to the streets.
The events Thursday were a remarkable display of the state’s inability to take on organized crime. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador explained Friday that El Chapo’s son Ovidio Guzmán López was released “to protect the lives of the people” 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 cartel’s ability to overwhelm the state. The gunmen carried military-grade weapons and sent convoys of trucks into the city streets.
Ovidio Guzmán 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.
López Obrador confirmed that the security forces had attempted to arrest Guzmán 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.
“We don’t want victims. We don’t want a war,” López Obrador said at a news conference, explaining that Guzmán’s release was reflective of his administration’s strategy not to use force against the country’s major criminal organizations.
The decision to detain and then almost immediately release one of Mexico’s most wanted drug traffickers — who was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department in February — was a shocking display of weakness for Mexico’s government, revealing how entrenched the country’s leading drug cartel remains, even after the arrest of El Chapo. It prompted widespread concern that Mexico’s drug cartels would be emboldened by the government’s failure, potentially leading to even more violence.
“It is a defeat of the country. It is a defeat of the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It is a defeat of the very dubious strategy of pacification that he defends,” wrote columnist Carlos Loret de Mola in El Universal.
In a video statement, top officials from Mexico’s security agencies described how agents came under attack by armed men from a house while on patrol.
“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 Security Minister Alfonso Durazo. “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.”
López Obrador contradicted that account, saying that security forces were intentionally seeking to arrest Guzmán when they came under fire. Mexican forces had badly misjudged the strength of the cartel’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 government’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.
Sinaloa’s public security director, Cristóbal Castañeda, 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.
“They’re freeing them,” exclaims a woman in one video. “We can’t leave here.”
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 Guzmán’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 “El Mayo” Zambada and El Chapo’s sons Jesús Alfredo Guzmán and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán.
In February, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment against two more of El Chapo’s sons, Ovidio Guzmán 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 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 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.
López 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 country’s drug cartels.
“Can’t value the capture of a criminal more than the lives of people,” he said.