Mexican president defends releasing son of "El Chapo" in face of cartel violence: "We do not want war"

Published: Oct. 18, 2019 at 7:30 PM CDT
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Mexican authorities said they backed off an attempt to capture a son of drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán after cartel gunmen shooting heavy weapons paralyzed the capital of Mexico's Sinaloa state and outgunned lawmen.

At least eight people were killed during the Thursday chaos, according to Defense Secretary General Luis Cresencio Sandoval, including five attackers and a member of the National Guard.

Authorities said 35 troops arrived at a home Thursday afternoon to arrest Ovidio Guzmán López on a 2018 extradition request from the U.S. They entered the home and found Guzmán and three others were inside.

Heavily armed men in greater force surrounded the house, and also unleashed mayhem elsewhere, taking over toll booths and main roads into the city. Men carrying high-caliber weapons blocked major intersections.

Amid the chaos, inmates at a prison rioted, seized weapons from guards and fled. Fifty-six prisoners escaped, and 49 were still at large Friday, according to Sinaloa Public Security Secretary Cristóbal Castañeda. Two guards were taken captive and later freed.

It was the third bloody and terrifying shootout in less than a week between security forces and cartel henchmen, raising questions about whether President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's policy of avoiding the use of force and focusing on social ills is working.

López Obrador defended the decision to back down, saying his predecessors' strategy "turned this country into a cemetery, and we don't want that anymore."

"This decision was made to protect citizens. ... You cannot fight fire with fire," he added. "We do not want deaths. We do not want war."

But Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who worked undercover in Mexico, called the violence "a massive black eye to the Mexican government" and a "sign that the cartels are more powerful" than it is.

"This is going to set an example for the other groups," Vigil told the Associated Press. "It sends them the message that if they capture a member of the cartel, all they have to do is go in the city and intimidate the citizenry and security forces."

Streets in Culiacán, a city of over 800,000, remained blocked with torched cars Friday morning. Schools were closed, and some public offices asked their employees to stay home. Few buses were running.

José Luis González Meza, a lawyer for El Chapo's family, told The Associated Press that Guzmán's family has said "Ovidio is alive and free," but that he had no more details about what had happened.

Ovidio is not one of the drug lord's best-known sons. Iván Archivaldo Guzmán and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán are known as "Los Chapitos," or "the little Chapos," and are believed to be running their father's cartel together with Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada. But Ovidio was indicted in 2018 by a grand jury in Washington, along with a fourth brother, for the alleged trafficking of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.

After authorities discovered Guzmán on Thursday, Culiacán exploded in violence. Armed civilians in trucks roared through the city's center, shooting what appeared to be .50-caliber sniper rifles and machine guns.

Videos published on social media showed a scene resembling a war zone, with gunmen, some wearing black ski masks over their faces, riding in the back of trucks firing mounted machine guns as vehicles burned. People could be seen running for cover as machine-gun fire rattled around them. Drivers frantically drove in reverse to get away from the clashes.

Castañeda, the Sinaloa public safety director, told Milenio television that gunmen blocked streets with burning vehicles, a common tactic to make it difficult for security forces to maneuver.

"Nothing is working," said Ricardo González, a worker in the state's congress who shut himself in his house after picking up his 15-year-old son from school. "There is a psychosis. No one knows what is going on but everyone is afraid and they have told us to not come in to work tomorrow."

González added that Culiacán had not seen such a scene for almost a decade when the Sinaloa Cartel was experiencing an internal war.

Sinaloa is home to the cartel by the same name, which was led by El Chapo. Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison in the United States in July.

After Guzmán's third arrest in 2016, an internal battle for succession began playing out between his many sons. The battle was resolved with the arrest of Damaso López Nunez and his son Dámaso López Serrano, who led a rival faction.