MEXICO CITY (AP) — A display of armed might by a drug cartel forced Mexican authorities to abandon an attempt to arrest a son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, leading Mexicans to question President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s security strategy and ask who really runs parts of the country. Here’s the situation:
WHAT HAPPENED IN CULIACAN?
About 35 Mexican soldiers and national guardsmen attempted to arrest Ovidio Guzman López, one of the lesser known sons of El Chapo, on a U.S. extradition request in the heartland of Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel. They found Guzman at a home with three others, but were soon surrounded by a superior force of cartel gunmen. Meanwhile, Guzman loyalists fired off bursts from automatic weapons and burned vehicles on major thoroughfares around the city to make it difficult for authorities to move. At least eight people died in the clashes. Federal authorities say they decided to leave without taking Guzman to avoid further bloodshed. On Friday, Mexican authorities said the president’s security cabinet had not been notified of the operation in advance.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was highly critical of his predecessors’ strategy that targeted high-value leaders of Mexico’s drug cartels. In many cases, the captures or killings led to a splintering of those groups and greater violence. López Obrador wants to get at the root causes of violence through social programs targeting the youth who might otherwise be drawn to organized crime because they lack other options. He campaigned with a slogan of “hugs, not bullets.” The problem in this first year of López Obrador’s administration is that most of his solutions would take time to bear fruit and Mexico is experiencing record levels of violence. He addressed that through the creation of the new National Guard, made up initially of military and federal police. But almost as soon as it was created, much of its manpower was redirected to battling migrant-smuggling operations under pressure from the U.S. government.
HOW MUCH POWER DO THE CARTELS HAVE?
The cartels remain the dominant power in parts of Mexico where the state has little presence. Typically, that’s a picture of rural lawlessness where those who are organized and armed rule. This week 13 state policeman were ambushed and killed in the western state of Michoacan. Usually the cartels exert softer power: buying off officials and authorities and covering their territory with an effective surveillance network. But Thursday’s events showed that even in a state capital the cartels can muster overwhelming firepower. The hyper-violent Jalisco New Generation cartel put on a similar display in Guadalajara —Mexico’s second largest city — in 2015 when it carried out a series of attacks to head off the attempted capture of its leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes. Similar, but smaller maneuvers have been used by the Zetas and Gulf cartel in Tamaulipas in recent years.
It remains unclear who was in charge of the operation. Officials said Friday that security forces planned to execute a judge’s warrant to arrest Guzman. But they apparently arrived at the house without a search warrant in hand. Officials in Mexico City said that if they had known about the operation, they would have done it differently. Obrador’s security minister, Alfonso Durazo, oversees the National Guard, which otherwise has a chain of command made up of mostly retired military officers. López Obrador has leaned heavily on the military since taking office for not only combatting drug cartels, but for pursuing fuel theft rings and now for building a new airport for the capital. Defense Secretary Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval said Friday the forces at Guzman’s house failed to plan for the magnitude of the reaction to Guzman’s arrest.
WHAT DOES THE PRESIDENT SAY?
López Obrador said Friday that he agreed with the decision to pull out without taking Guzmán: “The capture of one criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of people.”
“You cannot fight fire with fire,” said. “We do not want deaths. We do not want war.”
He insisted that his security strategy “is going very well, because it is attending to the causes of the violence,” and said he has no plans to change it.
WHAT ARE OTHERS SAYING?
López Obrador’s Morena party says it wants Durazo to testify in Congress on what happened, and it asked for more resources for the National Guard.
Juan Carlos Romero Hicks, the leader of the opposition National Action Party in the lower chamber, said congressmen also want to ask officials about other recent clashes, including 13 state police killed in Michoacan state and 14 civilians and one soldier killed in Guerrero. “It seems like the federal government is stunned and incapable of a response,” he said.
José Reveles, author of several books about the Sinaloa cartel, said the operation was “clumsy, not only an operational error, but also a political one that could lead to resignations.”
Associated Press writer Maria Verza contributed to this report