CULIACAN, Mexico — The son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán appears to have surrendered meekly to Mexican security forces during a raid in the northern city of Culiacán.
“Tell them to stop this,” a soldier can be heard ordering Ovidio Guzmán López in video of the botched October 17 operation released this week by the Mexican government. Guzmán López then dials one of his brothers as bursts of gunfire explode in the background.
The Sinaloa Cartel had unleashed a heavily-armed fighting force that would soon outmaneuver and overpower military and national guard troops. Guzmán was eventually released, with security forces retreating in what was widely seen as a victory for the mighty cartel once run by his father.
“Stop all this, listen, stop all this, please,” Guzmán says on the call. “I’ve already surrendered.”
The strategy backfired. Cartel leaders instead threatened to come after the families of military personnel, government officials said.
For hours after Guzmán’s plea, members of his organization — armed with machine guns, grenade launchers and other big guns — laid siege to parts of the city of one million people, according to a timeline released by Defense Minister Luis Crescencio Sandoval.
Operation carried out just over a month after US sought extradition
Gunmen surrounded and fired upon the home where Guzmán was briefly detained, Sandoval said. Military officers were taken hostage. Buses were commandeered — leaving commuters to run out in fear — and used to make roadblocks. A barrage of bullets was unloaded on a compound that housed military personnel and their families.
The failed operation was carried out just over a month after the United States had requested Guzmán’s extradition, according to Sandoval.
As the battle between security forces and cartel members dragged on, Mexican authorities decided to release Guzmán to prevent further bloodshed, they said. At least eight people were killed during the operation.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador appeared with Sandoval and Mexican Public Safety Secretary Alfonso Durazo this week at a news conference, where they sought to counter criticism that the government appeared weak against the powerful cartel.
“We saved lives, which is the most important thing,” the president said. “We will not confront violence with violence. … There is no war against drug trafficking. We will not expose civilian lives to the euphemism of collateral damage. That time is over. We want peace.”
Sandoval admitted the operation may have been hastily carried out though he said it had been planned for weeks. Confronting cartel members armed with anti-aircraft weapons and .50-caliber machine guns with equal firepower on city streets would have resulted in civilian casualties, he said.
Cartel gunmen descended on a military housing complex where children played
Guzmán, 28, is believed to play a major role in the powerful Sinaloa cartel and faces charges in the US of conspiracy to distribute drugs.
Sandoval described the younger Guzmán as a major mover of methamphetamine and fentanyl into the US.
But the attempt to arrest him turned into a fierce firefight on the streets of the city.
Sandoval outlined more than half a dozen assaults against security forces, including a military helicopter that was shot six times before the pilot was forced to return to his base. Video showed a soldier who lost part of his leg after it was shredded by machine gun fire.
A commander at the apartment complex where Guzmán was captured refused a $3 million bribe for his release, Sandoval said. When he refused, the cartel threatened the commander and his family.
Cartel gunmen intercepted military convoys delivering reinforcements with sprays of high-powered gunfire, Sandoval said.
Carloads of gunmen descended on a military housing complex where children were playing outside, the defense minister said. A sergeant rounded up the children and moved them to safety before he was taken hostage. Cartel members broke into apartments looking for hostages. Some residents escaped through windows, others cowered in closets.
Hours later, after Guzmán was released, cartel members did the same for nine soldiers and two officers who had been taken hostage, according to Sandoval.
‘The most important thing is the protection of citizens,’ president says
Many Culiacán residents remained locked in their homes as intense gun battles broke out throughout the day. Plumes of black smoke billowed on the horizon while on the ground, and mothers held their children while searching for cover behind parked cars, according to images on social media.
López Obrador took office last December with promises of a less confrontational strategy against the drug scourge. His government has vowed to address what it called the root causes of violence and economic insecurity.
“The most important thing is the protection of citizens, the protection of lives,” the president said this week.
Ovidio Guzmán López is the son of El Chapo Guzmán and his second wife, Griselda López. He is a kingpin in the Sinaloa cartel, according to the US Treasury Department.
In February, Guzmán was charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs to be imported into the US, along with his brother Joaquin Guzmán López, 34, by the US Department of Justice.
In July, their father — the onetime leader of the Sinaloa cartel — was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in the US.