World

8 killed in gun battles in capital of Mexico's Sinaloa state after troops locate El Chapo's son

Mexican security forces aborted an attempt to capture a son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman after finding themselves outgunned in a ferocious shootout with cartel henchmen that left at least eight people dead and more than 20 wounded, authorities said Friday.

More than 20 wounded amid violence that paralyzed city; Ovidio Guzman Lopez still free

Soldiers patrol outside the government palace in Culiacan, Mexico, on Friday, one day after the state capital was paralyzed by a ferocious gun battle between security forces and drug cartel henchmen. (Alfredo Estrella/AFPGetty Images)

Mexican security forces aborted an attempt to capture a son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman after finding themselves outgunned in a ferocious shootout with cartel henchmen that left at least eight people dead and more than 20 wounded, authorities said Friday.

The gun battle Thursday paralyzed the capital of Mexico's Sinaloa state, Culiacan, and left the streets littered with burning vehicles. Residents took cover indoors as automatic gunfire raged outside. Culiacan is located about 1,000 kilometres north of Mexico City.

Federal security officials said in a news conference Friday that those killed include one civilian, one member of the National Guard, one prisoner and five attackers. Sinaloa Public Security Secretary Cristobal Castaneda had previously said 21 people were wounded.

It was the third bloody and terrifying shootout in less than a week between security forces and cartel henchmen, raising questions about whether President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's policy of avoiding the use of force and focusing on social ills is working.

Lopez Obrador said he remains committed to tackling violence through peaceful means and dismissed such questions as "the point of view of our adversaries and the opposition media."

But Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who worked undercover in Mexico, called the violence "a massive black eye to the Mexican government" and a "sign that the cartels are more powerful" than it is.

Mexican police patrol in a street of Culiacan after the gunfight. At least eight people were killed and more than 20 were wounded during the violence, public security officials said. (Rashide Frias/AFP/Getty Images)

Streets in Culiacan, a city of over 800,000 people, remained blocked with torched cars Friday morning, schools were closed, and some public offices asked their employees to stay home. Few buses were running.

Teresa Mercado, who had just returned to her native Culiacan on Thursday, said, "This is worse than what I had lived through years ago."

Troops surrounded by gunmen

Authorities said 35 troops arrived at a home Thursday afternoon with a warrant to arrest Ovidio Guzman Lopez, son of the convicted Sinaloa cartel boss, on a 2018 extradition request from the U.S. They entered the home, where Guzman and three others were inside, they said.

The house was then surrounded by heavily armed gunmen who had "a greater force" and authorities decided to suspend the operation, said Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo. He did not say if Ovidio Guzman had been arrested or went free, but Durazo told Mexican media outlet Televisa late at night that security forces entered the house but left without him.

"With the goal of safeguarding the well-being and tranquillity of Culiacan society, officials in the security cabinet decided to suspend the actions," said Durazo.

The president, Lopez Obrador, said Friday that he backed the decisions of his security officials.

Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman, is escorted to a helicopter in Mexico City following his capture in 2014. His sons are said to be running the Sinaloa cartel in his absence. (Eduardo Verdugo/The Associated Press)

"The capture of one criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of people," Lopez Obrador said, calling the response to the operation "very violent" and saying many lives were put at risk.

"This decision was made to protect citizens.... You cannot fight fire with fire," he added. "We do not want deaths. We do not want war."

Defence Secretary Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval said seven members of the security forces were wounded and eight held captive before being released unharmed. 

The attacks were so brazen that Sinaloa cartel gunmen even attacked the housing complex where soldiers' wives and children live.

Amid the chaos, inmates at a prison rioted, seized weapons from guards and fled. Fifty-six prisoners escaped, and 49 were still at large Friday, according to Castaneda, the public security secretary. Two guards were taken captive and later freed.

Consequences 'not considered'

Security cabinet officials said they were not informed about the operation beforehand. They said troops surrounded the house without a search warrant and came under fire before one could be delivered, at that point deciding to enter without the warrant. And they said the troops underestimated the cartel's response.

Sandoval said that if the security cabinet had known about the operation, it would have gone about it differently and deployed more troops and even sent air support.

"It was rushed. The consequences were not considered," he said.

Jose Luis Gonzalez Meza, a lawyer for El Chapo's family, told The Associated Press that Guzman's family has said "Ovidio is alive and free" but that he had no more details about what had happened.

A police officer stands next to burnt vehicles in the wake of the deadly battle, on Friday. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

Ovidio was not one of the jailed Mexican drug lord's best-known sons — Ivan Archivaldo Guzman and Jesus Alfredo Guzman are known as los Chapitos, or the little Chapos, and are believed to currently run their father's Sinaloa Cartel together with Ismael (El Mayo) Zambada.

But Ovidio was indicted in 2018 by a grand jury in Washington, along with a fourth brother, for the alleged trafficking of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.

Jose Reveles, the author of several books on the Sinaloa cartel, said the operation was done clumsily from both an operational and a political standpoint.

"If the government says it did not know anything, that's absolutely unheard of, and especially for an operation of this magnitude," Reveles said. "If you're going to do an operation of this size, you should do it right — guard all flanks, add security in the prison."

At the same time, he allowed that "doing a surgical operation there is impossible; the strength of the Sinaloa cartel was made clear."

Heavily armed gunmen in four-by-four trucks fought an intense battle against Mexican security forces Thursday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Gunmen in ski masks

Following Thursday's localization of Ovidio Guzman, Culiacan exploded in violence with armed civilians in trucks roaring through the city's centre shooting what appeared to be .50-calibre sniper rifles and machine-guns.

Videos published on social media showed a scene resembling a war zone, with gunmen, some wearing black ski masks over their faces, riding in the back of trucks firing mounted machine-guns as vehicles burned. People could be seen running for cover as machine-gun fire rattled around them. Drivers drove in reverse frantically to get away from the clashes.

Sinaloa is home to the cartel by the same name, which was led by El Chapo Guzman. Guzman was sentenced to life in prison in the United States in July. He has many children.

After Guzman's third arrest in 2016, an internal battle for succession began playing out. The battle was resolved with the arrest of Damaso Lopez Nunez and his son Damaso Lopez Serrano, who led a rival faction.

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