MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican officials on Friday admitted they had bungled the arrest of kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s son, who they let go during shootouts with drug gangs in the streets of a major city, but the president insisted his security strategy was working.
Cartel gunmen surrounded around 35 police and national guards in the northwestern city of Culiacan on Thursday and made them free Ovidio Guzman, one of the jailed drug lord’s dozen or so children, after his brief detention set off widespread gun battles and a jailbreak that stunned the country.
(For a graphic on Thursday's events, please see: tmsnrt.rs/32sdppv)
The chaos in Culiacan, a bastion of Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, turned up pressure on President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December promising to pacify a country weary of more than a decade of gang violence and murders.
Security forces were attempting to enforce a federal judge’s arrest warrant against the younger Guzman for his extradition, drawing a fierce response, the government said.
In the end, Lopez Obrador came under heavy criticism on social media and from security experts, who said that authorities risked encouraging copycat actions by caving in to the gang, and that the retreat from a major city created the impression that the cartel, not the state, was in control.
His own officials said the operation in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state and home to nearly a million people, had not been planned as well as it should have been.
“It was done hastily, the consequences were not considered, the riskiest part wasn’t taken into account,” Defence Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval told a news conference in Culiacan, alongside Security Minister Alfonso Durazo, who called the attempt to capture the Guzman son a “failure.”
Durazo admitted he and the military top brass were not aware ahead of time of the mission to take into custody the alleged trafficker, calling it a bureaucratic error.
But the president defended the government’s response.
“Capturing a criminal can’t be worth more than people’s lives,” he said, adding that officials “did well” to free Ovidio Guzman. “We don’t want dead people, we don’t want war,” said Lopez Obrador, a veteran leftist who has advocated a less confrontational approach to tackling the gangs.
“We’re doing really well in our strategy,” he said.
The violent reaction to Guzman’s apprehension in a wealthy area of Culiacan was on a scale rarely seen during Mexico’s long drug wars.
Sandoval said he had reports of at least eight people killed, including five suspected gang members, in Culiacan, where schools were closed on Friday after the ordeal.
More than 200 soldiers were being sent to reinforce the city on Friday evening, a spokeswoman for the security ministry said.
One Facebook user stumbled on two dead bodies in the street near an abandoned truck, suggesting the death toll may yet rise in the city, where the government said gunmen staged 14 attacks on the armed forces and 19 road blocks where vehicles burned.
Footage of Thursday’s chaos on social media showed panicked residents fleeing and high caliber gunfire ringing out across town. People cowered in shopping centres and supermarkets and black plumes of smoke rose across the skyline.
Chaos continued into the night after a large group of inmates also escaped from the city prison.
On Friday, cars navigated burnt out vehicles that partially blocked streets.
Gladys McCormick, a security analyst at Syracuse University in the United States, said the latest news from Mexico read like that of a country in “the throes of war.”
“What is incontrovertible is that the Sinaloa Cartel won yesterday’s battle,” she added. “Not only did they get the government to release Ovidio, they demonstrated to the citizens of Culiacan as well as the rest of Mexico who is in control.”
Durazo said the government’s decision to free Guzman “involved absolutely no negotiation.”
Still, questions about how the release was handled continued circulating after defence minister Sandoval said nine security personnel were “held and freed without injury.”
Meanwhile, Jose Luis Gonzalez Meza, a lawyer for the Guzman family, thanked Lopez Obrador for the government’s actions.
“We have a humane president, a Christian president who in the end decided not to hurt Ovidio,” he told a news conference.
Lopez Obrador rejected the suggestion the government had showed weakness in releasing the younger Guzman, describing this view as “conjecture” put about by his adversaries to hurt him.
A trenchant critic of past administrations, Lopez Obrador said previous government strategies had turned Mexico into a “graveyard” and that his critics wanted him to continue with it.
He argues that authorities should focus more on the root causes of drug violence, such as poverty and a lack of jobs.
To boost security, Lopez Obrador has created a new National Guard - but thousands of that militarised police force’s members have instead been sent to contain illegal immigration through Mexico at the behest of U.S. President Donald Trump.
He has also sought to underline his command of law and order by chairing security cabinet meetings every weekday at 6 a.m.
Still, the murder tally in Mexico this year is on track to surpass last year’s record total of more than 29,000.
Thursday’s events followed the massacre of more than a dozen police in western Mexico earlier this week, and the killing of 14 suspected gangsters by the army a day later.
Lopez Obrador said police swooped on the Culiacan house to capture Ovidio Guzman, contradicting the initial version put out by the government, which was that officers had come under fire from the building while passing, then found Guzman inside.
The elder Guzman escaped from prison in Mexico twice, in 2001 and 2015. Under the previous administration, security forces captured him twice in Sinaloa, in 2014 and 2016.
The previous government extradited him to the United States on the eve of Trump’s accession. He was found guilty in a U.S. court in February of smuggling tons of drugs and sentenced to life in prison.
The U.S. Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against Ovidio and one of his brothers in February, charging them with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the United States.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declined to comment.
Reporting by Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz; Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien, Alistair Bell and Daniel Wallis