MEXICO CITY — Mexican security forces captured and then released one of country’s most powerful drug lords Thursday after apparently being overpowered by heavily armed combatants who laid siege to the northern Mexican city of Culiacan.
Security Minister Alfonso Durazo told Reuters that officials were trying to protect lives when they decided to free Ovidio Guzman Lopez, a leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel and the son of notorious drug boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Others speculated, however, that authorities may have colluded with gang members in Guzman’s release.
The cartel’s victory was a stunning humiliation for the Mexican government, which has struggled to quell growing violence across the country.
Videos posted on social media showed a city in which the government appeared to have lost control, with masked men firing high-powered weapons in the streets and roads blocked with burning vehicles.
In one clip, a group of civilians dressed in bulletproof vests and toting assault rifles surrounds soldiers who appear pacified. In another clip, a truck is driven through the city with a .50-caliber machine gun bolted to the back.
City residents took cover from the firefights wherever they could.
In one highly circulated video, a father comforted his daughter while they sought shelter from a shootout on the floor of a store.
“Why are they shooting bullets?” she asks.
“I don’t know, my love,” he answers. “Get down.”
Some Mexicans were angry that the government didn’t immediately announce Guzman’s release.
In a televised message Thursday night, Durazo said members of the army and the newly formed national guard had been conducting a routine patrol in the Tres Rios neighborhood of Culiacan when they were fired upon from a house.
Authorities returned fire, took control of the house and found four occupants inside, Durazo said. One of them was the 28-year-old Guzman.
Allies of Guzman quickly flocked to the scene and “surrounded the house with a greater force” than that of authorities, he said. At the same time, Durazo said, “other groups carried out violent actions against citizens in various points of the city, generating a situation of panic.”
Durazo did not say in his televised message that Guzman had subsequently been released, although he later clarified what happened to Reuters.
The arrest of a highly sought fugitive who has helped lead one of the country’s oldest and most powerful cartels would have been an impressive feat for the government.
Guzman has controlled a wing of the Sinaloa cartel along with his older brother, Ivan Archivaldo Guzman Salazar, since their father was captured and extradited to the United States in 2017. Their father was sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges earlier this year.
The Guzman sons, known as “Los Chapitos,” have faced competition in the past from Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a co-founder of the cartel who has at times sought to oust them.
The group has also faced challenges from the ascendant Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which has a history of openly confronting the state. The cartel is suspected in the ambush and killing of 14 police officers in the state of Michoacan on Monday.
Falko Ernst, a Mexico researcher with the nonprofit International Crisis Group, said the chaos in Culiacan “sets a highly dangerous precedent.”
“The message is: the Mexican government is not in control, and it can be successfully blackmailed,” he said.
He said all eyes will now be on Lopez Obrador, who has frequently criticized the militarized approach of his predecessors and who has vowed instead to tackle the social roots of crime.
“This is an extremely critical moment,” Ernst said. “If the government does not define a sound reaction to this, this might trigger imitations by others.”
Lopez Obrador was expected to address the situation in Culiacan at a news conference Friday morning.
Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, who was in Culican on Thursday night, said the conflict there appeared to be ongoing.
Smoke from blockades was visible on the horizon, he said, and many residents were sheltering in place. “People are pretty spooked,” he said.
The Sinaloa state government issued a statement urging residents to “keep calm.”
“Given the high-impact events that have been occurring in the last hours in various parts of Culiacan, we are working together … to restore order and tranquility,” the statement said. “The message to the population at this time is to remain calm, not to go out on the streets and to wait for official news about the evolution of these events.”
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