At least 29 people killed in Culiacán as drug cartel gunmen fight bloody battle to stop transport of El Chapo’s son after arrest
Álvaro Arandas was approaching the check-in counter at Culiacán international airport when the pandemonium began.
“You could hear the shooting – huge blasts, so much noise,” said the Mexican businessman, who had planned to board a flight to the eastern city of San Luis Potosí.
Instead, Arandas found himself scrambling for cover as security forces and cartel gunmen fought for control of an airfield that had become the latest frontline of a Latin American drug conflict that claims tens of thousands of lives every year.
“There was panic … people ditched their bags and their phones, they ditched everything, in order to take shelter,” the 32-year-old remembered of the clashes at just after 8am on Thursday.
Twenty-four hours later, Arandas remained stranded inside the airport, as Mexican troops battled to regain full control of Sinaloa’s state capital after the arrest of one of the country’s most wanted men, Ovidio Guzmán, sparked a day of bloodshed and chaos.
At least 29 people lay dead, including 10 members of the military and 19 alleged cartel shooters, while 35 soldiers were wounded.
And Guzmán, the 32-year-old son of former Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was behind bars in Mexico City after the latest bloody chapter in the history of his family’s north-western domain.
“Nobody is above the law,” Mexico’s security chief, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, declared on Friday as she celebrated Guzmán’s detention on the eve of next week’s visit by Joe Biden.
Culiacán’s day of drama began at about 4.40am on Thursday, according to the local newspaper Noroeste.
Thirty-five miles north of the capital, near a rural fishing community called Jesús María, security forces claimed they had spotted a convoy of around 25 cartel vehicles in which their target – AKA “El Ratón” (The Mouse) – was believed to be traveling.
Seven soldiers were killed in the ensuing gun battle between troops and gangsters with .50 caliber machine guns desperate to avoid the arrest of Guzmán, an alleged cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine trafficker for whose arrest the US had offered a $5m reward.
A Black Hawk gunship pummeled one target with a 3,000-shots-per-minute, six-barrel machine gun similar to those US troops used in Vietnam.
Eventually, Guzmán was arrested – but worse was still to come, as cartel gunslingers marauded across Sinaloa state, torching vehicles, blocking roads and trying to seize control of Culiacán’s airport to stop authorities extracting their leader.
“We are asking citizens not to go out,” Sinaloa’s security secretary, Cristóbal Castañeda, tweeted as the mayhem spread. “We will give you more information when we can.”
The former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) chief Mike Vigil said Mexican authorities were partly responsible for the cartel’s response to Guzmán’s arrest.
When the drug boss was briefly detained in October 2019, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador controversially ordered troops to free him after gangsters brought the city to a standstill in a day remembered as Culiacán’s “Black Thursday”.
“We do not want war,” López Obrador, who is best known as Amlo, said at the time.
Vigil said Amlo’s decision had sent a clear message to the leaders of Mexico’s two most feared organized crime groups, the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, “that if a leading member of the cartel was captured and you generated wholesale violence, there was a good possibility that they would be released”.
So it was that on Thursday morning, Sinaloa gunmen decided to raise hell.
“Obviously, they have developed a plan to seal off the entire city if they need it,” Vigil said. “The reaction is equivalent to any well-trained military. They know exactly what they need to do. Everybody has responsibilities.”
Part of their plan appears to have been commandeering Culiacán’s airport and preventing military aircraft from landing there to fly their high-profile prisoner out.
As Arandas arrived at check-in, gangsters opened fire on both military and civilian planes – some still in flight – as well as airport buildings, Mexico’s defense secretary, Luis Cresencio Sandoval, told reporters on Friday.
“Two airforce planes … had to make emergency landings,” after being hit by “a considerable number” of cartel bullets, Sandoval admitted in a breathtaking official account of the war-like violence.
The targeted planes included Aeroméxico’s 8.24am flight to Mexico City, whose bewildered passengers were filmed crouching for cover between its dark blue seats as the assault unfolded around them. “Why?” one frightened child can be heard asking a parent.
Some analysts believe Guzmán’s arrest was intended as a gesture to Biden, whom Amlo is scheduled to meet in Mexico City on Monday to discuss issues such as migration and security, including Mexico’s role in the US fentanyl crisis.
“Right out of the Amlo playbook,” one former senior US law enforcement official in Mexico told Vice. “Plays us like a fiddle.”
Security expert Óscar Balderas said the capture would allow Amlo to signal to the US that Mexico was capable of dealing effective blows to organized crime. Guzmán was also a domestic “trophy” Amlo could use to claim that his “abrazos no balazos” (hugs not bullets) security policy – which puts fighting the social roots of crime above violent confrontation – was working. “It’s a demonstration that his hugs, not bullets strategy isn’t a strategy that means impunity.”
Calderón sends in the army
Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.
Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.
Simultaneously Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.
That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.
Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.
But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.
“Hugs not bullets”
The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.
“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.
Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong “National Guard”. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.
Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.
Vigil called the capture of Guzmán – who was spirited to Mexico City by helicopter – “a victory for justice and the rule of law”.
But he said the Sinaloa cartel was such a vast, horizontally run organization that his arrest was unlikely to make a major difference to its illegal operations.
“They operate in six of the seven continents. The only continent they don’t operate in is Antarctica because penguins don’t have money to buy drugs,” Vigil joked, adding: “[This is] not going to have any impact on the violence in Mexico or the drugs coming into the US, especially fentanyl, which is the major crisis that we have.”
By Friday afternoon, the violence appeared to have subsided in Culiacán. The city’s ghostly streets began to fill as cartel roadblocks were dismantled, although the state security secretary told locals to drive with their windows down if they were tinted.
Few expect the calm will last long. Some fear a power struggle between a weakened Sinaloa cartel and its Jalisco rivals. Others suspect a showdown is brewing between El Chapo’s four sons, who are known as Los Chapitos, and gangsters loyal to the legendary cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
Vigil warned that while normality may have returned to Culiacán’s streets, cartel bosses would soon order their “army of assassins” to take revenge on military officials and their families for Guzmán’s arrest.
“They will not let this stand,” he said.