MEXICO CITY — Heavy gunfire consumed the streets of Culiacán on Thursday, as Mexican security forces struggled to fend off members of the Sinaloa cartel, once led by notorious drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Members of the cartel deployed across the city with military-grade weapons, a remarkable, live-streamed glimpse into their ability to overwhelm the state.
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 as 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 Guzman.
Security Minister Alfonso Durazo told Reuters that Guzman was released to protect lives; reports indicate the cartel took eight government soldiers hostage, as a bargaining chip to secure the cartel heir’s release.
Video footage here shows a gunman lying on the ground firing a weapon in the city of Culiacan, Sinaloa today. Rumors suggest that one of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s sons Ívan Archivaldo has been captured and possibly killed following a fierce gun battle in the city…. pic.twitter.com/ElCd94lc5n
— Deborah Bonello (@mexicoreporter) October 17, 2019
The decision to detain and then almost immediately 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.
In a video statement Thursday, top officials from Mexico’s security agencies initially described how agents came under attack by armed men from a house while 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 the government’s first version of events.
“My suspicion is that they went after him 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 random, 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. 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 saved lives. “We’re doing really well in our strategy.”
He rejected criticism his government had acted weakly. Lopez Obrador has backed away from an aggressive military-led strategy to defeat the cartels, which many of his predecessors championed. He said Friday the previous strategy had turned Mexico into a “graveyard.” Within an hour of Guzman’s apparent capture on Thursday, images were flooding social media of carnage on Culiacán’s streets. Reuters and several Mexican news outlets soon reported that he had been released.
Videos appeared to show heavily armed civilians firing machine guns mounted in pickup trucks. The violence had erupted at around 3.30 p.m. local time and by 9 p.m., it was still going. 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.
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.”
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.
— CNW (@ConflictsW) October 18, 2019
“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.