The Mexican city of Culiacan, in Sinaloa state, has come into the spotlight in recent days due to the dramatic capture and release of one of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s sons, Ovidio Guzman, known as “El Chapito.” El Chapo is one of the most prominent narcos in cartel history, with many putting him at the same level with Colombia’s Pablo Escobar. Earlier this year, Guzman was sentenced to life in prison by a jury in New York following his extradition by the Mexican government in January 2017.
However, after El Chapo’s capture in 2016, the Guzman family has kept control of the notorious Sinaloa cartel, which has been estimated to make $11 billion in drug sales to the US annually, through 4 of his sons: Jesus and Ivan Guzman Salazar, and their half-brothers, Joaquin and Ovidio Guzman Lopez. Juaquin and Ovidio are wanted in the United States for carrying on their father’s business and smuggling marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine into the US.
In a joint operation by the Mexican army and the national guard, 35 elite troopers arrested Ovidio Guzman a little before 3pm in Culiacan, the heart of the Sinaloa cartel’s stronghold, after a face-off with his security detail. However, the operation has provoked retaliation from the cartel, with the police coming under heavy fire. Chaos spread in Culiacan amid gun battles and the threat of attacks on civilians. Families were trapped inside houses and shops, a toll booth at the border of the city was attacked, and 51 prisoners escaped from jail. Several soldiers were kidnapped and one killed.
As a result of the violence, Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO), decided to release the prisoner in order to restore calm. Was this the right decision that saved the lives of civilians in a conflict-torn region that has already paid a too high a human toll for cartel violence? In the first 10 years of war against the cartels, between 2006 and 2016, more than 174,000 thousand homicides occurred in Mexico. Other sources give an even higher estimate of up to 250,000 deaths in 13 years. Or was this a mistake by Lopez Obrador’s government that has brought Mexico to its knees before organized crime?
The premise of the current administration is that the government won’t allow collateral damage, and that no civilians should be harmed or put at risk. The foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, affirmed that if the government had retained Guzman, more than 200 lives would have been lost in the fight. President Lopez Obrador went on to say that “You cannot value the life of a delinquent more than the lives of the people. … You can’t fight fire with fire.”
Lopez Obrador’s response comes at a crucial moment when Mexico is facing turmoil and social protests by indigenous groups who, among other claims, have protested against abuse of power carried out by security effectives and infrastructure projects that threaten their rights. The president’s conciliating approach might claim a bigger political victory with his message of “no collateral damage,” which could alleviate the tensions on several fronts, specially resonating with the indigenous opposition.
However, conservative political adversaries are contesting the government’s security strategy. With the first three months of this year being the most violent in the country’s modern history, the president’s insistence that there is no war in Mexico is seen by many as a massive setback to President Enrique Pena Nieto’s declaration of war on the cartels in 2006. Some of his opponents fear that AMLO could even negotiate with the cartels.
Following El Chapito’s release, Mexico’s security cabinet, led by Alfonso Durazo, made a joint statement, where it recognized the failed operation in which government troops were outnumbered. This contradicts the initial statements made by Durazo suggesting that the operation had allegedly started as a routine patrol that eventually lead to the capture of Ovidio Guzman. Secretary Durazo also confirmed that Mexico won’t go back to the times of massacres and that peace will be achieved — but not by turning Mexico into a graveyard.
In a press conference, Lopez Obrador insisted that the release of Ovidio Guzman was not a product of any illegal treaty or corruption of the armed forces, and that he personally supports his team’s decision. The governor of Sinaloa in his statement talked about a badly executed operation but hailed the transparency of the central government in addressing the situation and communicating what happened.
Then, the military released a short video explaining what happened in Culiacan, where it affirmed that the Sinaloa cartel deployed between 700 and 800 armed men and threatened to attack civilians. They were confronted by 350 army soldiers, who reported five enemy kills. The video leaves more questions than answers, however. It seems to suggest that the military fulfilled its mission — the capture of Guzman — and that it used only the necessary means of self-defense and avoided using all available firepower to prevent casualties. Then the army reaffirmed its values and its love for Mexico, implying the cartel had neither.
The video serves as evidence on how little clarity there is on what really happened in Culiacan. There is no clear record of where forces were deployed, where they were outnumbered, or of the proof of a direct threat to civilians. The military simply accused the cartel of being cowards but failed to give a transparent account of the operation.
The initial conclusions point to a planned operation by the security forces. An action of this magnitude should have foreseen all these risks and taken proper measures — reinforcements only arrived hours later to patrol Culiacan and nearby areas. There will be an investigation to review the protocol and actions of both the army and the national guard to see if there were any deliberate omissions that led to the failure of the operation.
The Sinaloa cartel demonstrated just how organized it is, alongside its ability to sink the region into chaos. Within a few hours, its fighters blocked the main entrances to the city and closed bridges, attacking army and police facilities. It is clear there was a plan B in case the attack was repelled by the security forces. The cartel executed what seems to be a well-thought-out maneuver, doing what the army failed to do: plan the operation and foresee risks. Will this retaliatory attack mark a new modus operandi against strategic operations by the Mexican armed forces and the actions of allied countries?
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The failed operation is a blow for the morale of the army and national guard. This becomes even more relevant in a country where these two institutions remain the only reference points of justice, with the police plagued by corruption and infiltrated by drug lords. The release of Ovidio Guzman can be seen as a strong disincentive for future security operations against the cartels in Mexico. Why would a police officer or soldier put his life on the line knowing that the president may back down in his decisions or negotiate with the cartels?
The president, as commander-in-chief of the army, must also be cautious that his political moves and his cabinet choices do not undermine the rule of law and the institutions that carry such a mandate. Mexico is shifting away from a warlike approach to security, and there needs to be a clear and strong mandate of support for those who are carrying out law-enforcement tasks. This starts by planning well and not backing down in the face of challenging decisions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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