Mexico City • Cartel gunmen paralyzed a major Mexican city Thursday, unleashing hails of automatic gunfire in broad daylight in a staggering show of force after soldiers arrested and then released Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of infamous drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera.
The violence began shortly after 3:30 p.m. in the city of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state, when a patrol of 30 soldiers came under attack by individuals in a home in the neighborhood of Tres Ríos, according to government officials.
After taking control of the home, the security forces encountered and detained four men — among them Guzmán López, a leader in the Sinaloa cartel. Cartel gunmen then surrounded the home and engaged the armed forces, the officials said. But they ultimately decided to release him
Later, the cartel deployed fighters throughout the neighborhood and began burning vehicles and blockading streets throughout the city.
Gunfire continued into Thursday night, as soldiers and cartel fighters battled in the streets. In its brief statement, the government said it had opted to suspend its operation but did not elaborate on what exactly that meant. Later, it became clear through local media that the government forces had indeed released Guzmán López back into the custody of the cartel.
The development was a major humiliation for the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has struggled to articulate a clear security strategy to combat Mexico’s record violence. Some analysts even cast doubt on the government narrative that 30 soldiers and national guardsmen were patrolling and came under attack by a small contingent of gunmen.
“My suspicion is that they went after him and they lost,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst in Mexico City.
The echoes of gunfire sent citizens fleeing for safety as the assault began, while others sat trapped in their vehicles, capturing footage on cellphone cameras. The harrowing videos, uploaded onto social media, showed heavily armed men in ski masks blocking streets and halting traffic while plumes of black smoke filled the sky.
Others showed the powerful weaponry wielded by the traffickers, including mounted .50-caliber guns.
The gunmen’s efforts, and successful overpowering of the government, offered a harrowing glimpse at the power and impunity with which drug cartels operate in Mexico. In capturing Guzmán López on his home turf, the government dealt yet another — but fleeting — blow to the Sinaloa cartel, which has struggled to regain its footing after the arrest and conviction of the elder Guzman, its longtime leader, known as El Chapo.
In its response, the cartel appeared to be sending a message of its own.
“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,” said Ernesto Martínez, a local crime reporter who was caught in the middle of a gunbattle only a few feet away from his vehicle.
Martínez had gone to report on a separate shooting when he ran into an army vehicle, which had stopped a car with individuals carrying machine guns. Suddenly, he said, the gunfire started and the soldiers yelled: “Everybody down, shootout!”
Martínez said he then noticed a white vehicle with masked men shooting at the soldiers. He was still recording video of the scene as he drove to the nearest gas station looking for shelter.
“The sound of the bullets was so strong, I could almost smell the gunpowder,” he said.
The gunfight lasted for 20 minutes before another one erupted, he said. The second shootout lasted for almost four hours, he said, and continued late into Thursday.
Martínez said most of the confrontations took place in Tres Ríos, an upscale commercial and business district, but he said chaos reigned throughout the city with burned vehicles and houses and roadblocks in different locations, and gunshots being fired at government buildings, including the state attorney’s office.
Hours after the mayhem began, most businesses had closed, with people locked down in their houses and public transportation suspended in what Martínez described as a “self-imposed” state of emergency.
Mexico is facing its deadliest year since the country began recording homicide statistics more than 20 years ago. Warfare between rival cartels fighting for control of the drug trade to the United States has turned parts of the country into some of the deadliest places on Earth.
The government has continued to target top cartel leaders in its now 13-year war on drugs. This despite the fact that the so-called kingpin strategy has helped usher in the nation’s most violent period in recent history.
It is not unheard-of for cartel assassins to stage brazen attacks in broad daylight, often in response to an arrest of a high-ranking member or to target their enemies. In May 2018, gunmen stormed a Japanese restaurant in Guadalajara, targeting a former state prosecutor and setting off a gunbattle in an upscale area of the city.
Rumors quickly began circulating on social media late Thursday that the gunfights were related to the cartel that was run by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, which remains powerful in Sinaloa, his home state. He was convicted in February in the United States on drug, murder and money laundering charges, and was sentenced to life in prison.
In February, the Justice Department charged two of his sons, Joaquín Guzmán López and Ovidio Guzmán López, with one count each of conspiracy to “knowingly, intentionally, and willfully” distribute cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana for import into the United States.
Two of Joaquín Guzmán Loera’s older sons who helped take over his business after his arrest in 2016, Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar, also face charges in the United States. The drug kingpin’s sons were often mentioned during his trial, and they were accused of helping to orchestrate his tunnel escape from a maximum-security prison in Almoloya, Mexico, in 2015.
But Thursday’s brazen display of firepower in the streets of Culiacán was extraordinary behavior for the Sinaloa cartel, which has generally tried to keep a lower profile, analysts said, a potential harbinger of a split in the nation’s once-dominant criminal organization.
Some believe the cartel’s show of force might reflect a schism within the group, one that deepened with the arrest of El Chapo. Since then, various factions have been jockeying for control and some suspected that it might have been one of those factions that engaged in Thursday’s mayhem.
“This break from the pattern signals a major disruption,” said Jaime López Aranda, a security analyst based in Mexico City. “I think that being so brazen and so open is the kind of thing done by organizations that are less disciplined and coherent and organized.”
“The ability to exercise restraint is key to an organization’s survival in the long term,” he added. “Successful criminal organizations are able to restrain themselves, and Sinaloa has been successful for a long time.”