Failed raid against El Chapo’s son leaves 8 dead in Mexico

Andrés Villarreal and Peter Orsi
Associated Press
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Culiacan, Mexico – Mexican security forces aborted an attempt to capture a son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after finding themselves outgunned in a ferocious shootout with cartel henchmen that left at least eight people dead and more than 20 wounded, authorities said Friday.

The gunbattle Thursday paralyzed the capital of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, Culiacan, and left the streets littered with burning vehicles. Residents took cover indoors as automatic gunfire raged outside.

Police escort a caravan of funeral vehicles transporting the bodies of Mexican police officers killed in an apparent cartel ambush, in Morelia, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. The families of the 13 slain police officers gathered to mourn their loved ones outside a funeral home in the western state of Michoacan on Tuesday, many of them angry at the government and police chiefs they believe sent them to a certain death.

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.”

Relatives touch the coffin and photo of police officer Pablo Sergio Reynel, one of a group of officers killed in the line of duty, during a memorial service at the public security department headquarters for Michoacan, in Morelia, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019.

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.

Streets in Culiacan, 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.

Teresa Mercado, who had just returned to her native Culiacan on Thursday, said: “This is worse than what I had lived through years ago.”

Burnt out vehicles used by gunmen still smolder on a street, a day after street battles between gunmen and security forces in Culiacan, Mexico, Friday Oct. 18, 2019.

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, where Guzman 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.

Blood stains the street after a gunfight in Culiacan, Mexico, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. An intense gunfight with heavy weapons and burning vehicles blocking roads raged in the capital of Mexico's Sinaloa state Thursday after security forces located one of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman's sons who is wanted in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges.

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.

Videos on social media showed a scene resembling a war zone, with gunmen, some in black ski masks, riding in the back of trucks and firing mounted machine guns as smoke rose above the cityscape. People ran for cover as gunfire rattled around them, and motorists drove frantically in reverse, trying to escape the bullets.

Five attackers, a member of the National Guard, a civilian and a prisoner died in the gunbattles, Defense Secretary Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval said. He said seven members of the security forces were wounded and eight held captive before being released unharmed.

The government’s security cabinet made the decision to withdraw the troops to avoid greater loss of life.

“The capture of one criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of people. They made the decision and I supported it,” López Obrador said. He added: “We do not want deaths. We do not want war.”

The governor of the Mexican state of Michoacan Silvano Aureoles shakes the hand of a relative of one of the Mexican police officers killed in an apparent cartel ambush, during a memorial service in Morelia, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019.

Security cabinet officials said they were not informed about the operation beforehand. They said troops surrounded the house without a search warrant and came under fire before one could be delivered, at that point deciding to enter without the warrant. And they said the troops underestimated the cartel’s response.

Sandoval said that if the security cabinet had known about the operation, it would have gone about it differently and deployed more troops and even sent air support.

“This group … rushed things. It did not consider the consequences,” he said.

It was not clear what happened to Guzmán after the troops left. Federal Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo said he was never under formal detention. José Luis González Meza, a lawyer for the Guzman family, said he was told Ovidio is “alive and free.”

José Reveles, the author of several books on the Sinaloa cartel, said the operation was done clumsily from both an operational and a political standpoint.

“If the government says it did not know anything, that’s absolutely unheard of, and especially for an operation of this magnitude,” Reveles said. “If you’re going to do an operation of this size, you should do it right – guard all flanks, add security in the prison.”

At the same time, he allowed that “doing a surgical operation there is impossible; the strength of the Sinaloa cartel was made clear.”

A charred truck that belongs to Michoacan state police sits on the side of the road after it was burned during an attack, as state police drive past in El Aguaje, Mexico, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.

Vigil, the former DEA agent, worried that the retreat could lead to more bloodshed.

“This is going to set an example for the other groups,” Vigil said. “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.”

The elder Guzman is serving a life sentence in the U.S. after being convicted last February of industrial-scale drug trafficking.

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 Guzmán was indicted in 2018 in Washington, along with a fourth brother, on charges of trafficking cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.

Gunbattles between gangs and security forces are relatively common in Mexico, but this week has seen three notable and frightening clashes. On Monday, 13 police officers were killed in a cartel ambush in the state of Michoacan, and the following day soldiers killed 14 gunmen while losing one of their own in neighboring Guerrero state.

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Peter Orsi reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writer María Verza in Mexico City contributed.

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