MEXICO CITY — Heavy gunfire consumed the streets of Culiacán on Thursday afternoon, when 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 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 Guzman.
Security Minister Alfonso Durazo told Reuters that Guzman was released to protect lives.
The decision to detain and then almost immediately release one of Mexico’s most wanted drug traffickers – who has also been indicted by the U.S. Justice Department — would be a shocking display of capitulation 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, top officials from Mexico’s security agencies described how agents came under attack by armed men from a house while on 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.”
Durazo did not confirm that Ovidio Guzman was arrested or escaped. Mexican media outlets Televisa and Milenio both said senior officials had confirmed the capture. But many security analysts in Mexico were left confused by the statement.
“But Ovidio was arrested or returned to the narcos?” asked analyst Héctor de Mauleón in a tweet.
Within an hour, Reuters and several Mexican news outlets reported that Guzman had been released.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador did not issue any statements about the attack. But he was stopped at the airport by people who filmed him while asking questions about Sinaloa. “We’ll talk tomorrow,” he replied.
Videos circulating on social media appeared to show heavily armed civilians firing machine guns mounted in pickup trucks.
Sinaloa public security director Cristóbal Castañeda told Milenio television that between 20 and 30 prisoners had escaped 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.”
By 9 p.m. local time, the fighting appeared to continue. Improvised roadblocks were constructed with vehicle 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.
Culiacán in northwestern Mexico is the stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel where the organization has ample support and firepower – demonstrated Thursday across that city.
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.
Lopez Obrador has backed away from an aggressive military-led strategy to defeat the cartels, which many of his predecessors championed. On Thursday, Mexican officials were quick to depict the day’s incident as security forces acting in self-defense, rather than a planned takedown of one of Mexico’s most wanted men.