With escape of El Chapo’s son, Mexico suffers a stunning defeat

A burnt out vehicle used by gunmen sits abandoned next to a stadium, a day after street battles between gunmen and security forces in Culiacan, Mexico, Friday Oct. 18, 2019. (AP)

(Written by Azam Ahmed)

Escape, it seems, is a trait shared in the Guzmán family.

So is embarrassing the government of Mexico.

Joaquin Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo, eluded the grasp of the government numerous times — in tunnels, behind closets, beneath bathtubs and through steep ravines in the remote mountains of Sinaloa. He even managed to escape prison, twice.

The latest family member to escape apprehension — El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán Lopez — managed his own feat of government humiliation this week, when cartel henchmen forced a patrol of at least 30 members of government forces to release him after he had been captured.

The stunning surrender — with Mexican forces badly outmatched, taken hostage by outlaws and forced to let loose a prominent suspect in their custody — began with a siege on the city of Culiacán on Thursday by members of the Sinaloa Cartel, once headed by El Chapo. Videos of fierce gunbattles in the street, armed men blocking roads, residents fleeing to safety and clouds of black smoke rising from burning vehicles swamped social media.

Reports swirled that after the capture of the younger Guzmán, his cartel mounted a fierce assault to win his freedom and prevent his extradition to the United States. But the government remained silent, asking citizens to stay indoors and avoid being in the street throughout most of the day.

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. (AP)

Later, it clarified, at least partially, saying a patrol had stumbled on Guzmán, but had suspended the operation when it became outnumbered and outgunned by enemy fighters. The next morning the truth came out, pried loose by local media. The patrol was actually a planned operation to capture Guzmán and extradite him to the United States, the government acknowledged Friday.

The armed forces managed to detain him, but they were forced to let him go after eight of their members were taken by force and held hostage, the government said. Surrounded by enemies, with no clear plan for backup on ground or in the air, and no clear exit strategy, the soldiers relented and gave Guzmán back.

“Decisions were made that I support, that I endorse because the situation turned very bad and lots of citizens were at risk, lots of people and it was decided to protect the life of the people,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in a news conference Friday. “You cannot value the life of a delinquent more than the lives of the people.”

A Mexican police officer deploys tape to secure the scene around a bullet-riddled armed forces truck, a day after gunmen and members of Mexico security forces clashed in a large gun battle in Culiacan, Mexico, Friday Oct. 18, 2019. (AP)

According to a former U.S. official and another person briefed on the matter, the force behind the cartel’s rapid and effective response was yet another Guzmán — El Chapo’s older son, Ivan, who has taken a prominent role in the cartel since his father was caught, extradited to the United States and sentenced to life in prison in July on drug, murder and money laundering charges.

They said that Ivan was initially captured by the military as well, but that his henchmen quickly overpowered the armed forces and secured his release. Once free, the elder brother then orchestrated a staggering show of force to secure the freedom of his brother, Ovidio.

The effort not only included holding soldiers hostage, but also kidnapping their families, according to the two people briefed on the matter, who were not authorized to speak publicly. Government press officers did not respond to requests for comment.

A burning bus, set alight by cartel gunmen to block a road, is pictured during clashes with federal forces following the detention of Ovidio Guzman, son of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, Mexico October 17, 2019. (Reuters)

The cartel’s victory offered a frightening glimpse into the power wielded by organized crime in Mexico, distilling in a single, eight-hour stretch the extent to which the nation is held captive by criminal networks — without a plan to combat the scourge of violence that has brought the country to its deadliest point in decades.

It was a major loss of face for a president who has consistently waved off doubts about his security strategy — or, in the eyes of critics, his lack of one.

Like his predecessor, López Obrador has tried to distance himself from the violence tearing at his nation, opting instead to focus on a slate of domestic programs to target poverty.

But, also like his predecessor, he may have come to a point where brushing aside such concerns proves disastrous for his presidency. For the previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto, that moment came with the disappearance of 43 students in the town of Iguala, a mystery that remains unsolved.

Some wondered whether the public overpowering of the military will become a similar turning point for López Obrador. For many, the events of Thursday unfolded as if scripted by an overzealous screenwriter pushing the bounds of believability.

“No one could imagine such a bad Netflix show,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City. “This combination of actually capturing the guy and then releasing him? That’s new.”

It remained unclear how the government expected to detain a leader of one of the most powerful cartels in the world on its home turf without sufficient backup or adequate plans to extract themselves.

In his news conference Friday, López Obrador spent the majority of the time ignoring or avoiding the subject, while also dismissing criticism of the government’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of organized crime.

“You can’t fight fire with fire,” he said of the decision to hand Guzmán back to his cartel. “We do not want dead people, we do not want war. And this takes a lot to understand.”

Still, fighting fire with fire was, in the end, what happened. At least seven people died, including one civilian, and 16 were injured, according to Mexican security officials.

López Obrador’s security Cabinet later put much of the blame on the soldiers themselves and acknowledged the operation had been poorly planned.

Public outrage has boiled over, not only at the embarrassing defeat but also at the government’s lackluster strategy to combat the lawlessness.

“I can summarize this as a failure from the tactical to the strategic,” said Christian Ehrlich, a security expert with Riskop, a Mexican risk analysis firm.

From the beginning, López Obrador has struggled to confront the nation’s rising violence. After promising to remove the military from the streets, where confrontations with organized crime have only increased violence, he opted instead to create a new force, the national guard.

Mexican soldiers and others were transitioned to the new team, whose mandate was unclear from the start. With the army, navy and the federal police already deployed to hot spots across the country, the government has had a hard time articulating its vision for the role of the national guard.

In recent months, the new force has stumbled on its mission somewhat inadvertently — in response to pressure from President Donald Trump. Its task now largely focuses on policing the nation’s borders and apprehending migrants heading through Mexico on the way to the United States.

This task has drawn those forces into a new direction, apart from public security, which has left some areas with fewer resources.

Homicides have hit new records each year for the last two years. This year is no different: The nation is on track to suffer its worst run of murders since the government began to tally them.

Now, with the release of Guzmán by the armed forces, the government has suffered one of the most memorable defeats in its 13-year war on drugs.

“The events in Culiacán come after a week that began with the killing of 13 state police officers in Michoacan and a gunbattle outside of Iguala in Guerrero that left 15 dead,” said Raúl Benítez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “What comes next?” he said.

In recent years, Mexico had grown adept at the capture of so-called kingpins, for better or worse. While the strategy has largely failed to quiet the violence, U.S. and Mexican officials took comfort in knowing that it has succeeded in detaining and extraditing major figures.

Guzmán’s father, El Chapo, was arrested multiple times before he was sentenced to life in prison in the United States. Leaders of the Zeta Cartel, the Gulf Cartel and a long list of others have also been apprehended in coordinated action among law enforcement and the armed forces.

But, with the latest blunder, many fear the government’s decision to let Guzmán go under fire from the cartels will embolden them.

“The government was forced to accept the cartel’s control over the city and not confront them,” Benítez said. “To the people of Culiacán, the president is sending a very tough message: The cartel is in charge here.”