World

Mexican city erupts in violence, residents ordered to stay indoors after drug cartel leader's arrest

Canadians in Mexico's northwest are being advised to take extra care amid an outbreak of violence following the arrest of Sinaloa drug cartel leader Ovidio Guzman, a son of jailed kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Multiple airports in Sinaloa state are closed after an Aeromexico flight was reportedly hit by gunfire

An abandoned white pickup truck sits on a road in front of a burning object which is creating a lot of smoke.
Burning vehicles are seen blocking a road in Culiacan, Mexico, on Thursday after the capture of Sinaloa drug cartel leader Ovidio Guzman, the son of kingpin Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman. (Revista Espejo/Leo Espinoza/Reuters)

Canada's government is urging Canadians in Mexico's Sinaloa state to limit their movements and shelter in place amid an outbreak of violence in the country's northwest following the arrest of a notorious drug cartel's leader.

Mexican authorities on Thursday confirmed the arrest of Ovidio Guzman, a 32-year-old senior member of the Sinaloa Cartel and a son of jailed kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

His arrest unleashed a violent backlash by gang gunmen on Thursday that shut the airport in the city of Culiacan as authorities told residents to stay indoors. 

Videos shared on social media appeared to show heavy fighting overnight in Culiacan, the main city in the northern state of Sinaloa, with the sky lit up by helicopter gunfire.

The city's airport was the target of violence, with Mexican airline Aeromexico saying one of its planes had been hit by gunfire ahead of a scheduled flight to Mexico City. No one was hurt, the airline said, but the airport was closed until Thursday night.

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On Thursday afternoon, Global Affairs Canada warned Canadians in Sinaloa to take extra care, especially in the cities of Culiacán, Mazatlán, Los Mochis and Guasave.

It advised Canadians to avoid demonstrations and gatherings and not to attempt to cross road blockades. It also recommended contacting their airline or tour operator to change travel arrangements if necessary, and to monitor local media and follow the instructions of local authorities.

The Culiacán and Mazatlán airports were closed and all flights were suspended at Los Mochis airport until further notice, Global Affairs said.

On Thursday afternoon, Aeromexico announced it was also suspending operations in Obregón, a six-hour drive northwest of Culiacan.

A firefighter points a fire hose at a burned-out vehicle as another firefighter walks in front of them.
Firefighters extinguish a vehicle set on fire amid violence in the city of Mazatlan on Thursday. (Reuters)

Ovidio, who has become a key figure in the cartel since the arrest of his father, was briefly detained in 2019 but was quickly released to end violent retribution in Culiacan from his gang. The incident was an embarrassing setback for the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Residents told to stay indoors

On Thursday morning, security forces were attempting to contain a violent reaction to the arrest in the Culiacan area by Guzman's associates.

Burned vehicles were scattered on the streets and heavily armed law enforcement patrolled in pickup trucks.

"We continue to work on controlling the situation," said Cristobal Castaneda, Sinaloa's public security chief.

Local government urged people to stay indoors and said schools and administrative offices were closed due to the violence. Street blockades had also been erected.

Two soldiers dressed in camouflage and helmets, and pointing guns, are crouched on either side of a pickup truck. A third soldier is standing in the bed of the pickup truck.
Soldiers stand in position following heavy fighting on the streets of Culiacan on Thursday. (Reuters)

"We ask the citizens of Culiacan not to leave home due to the blockades that have occurred in different parts of the city," Culiacan Mayor Juan de Dios Gamez wrote on Twitter.

Arrest days before Trudeau, Biden visit

Ovidio's latest capture comes before a North American leaders' summit in Mexico City next week, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden will attend, and at which security issues are on the agenda.

One of the Mexican officials said Guzman's arrest was likely to prove a welcome addition to U.S.-Mexico cooperation on security ahead of Biden's visit. The United States had offered a $5 million US reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Ovidio.

It is not yet clear whether Ovidio will be extradited to the United States like his father, who is serving a life sentence at Colorado's Supermax, the most secure U.S. federal prison.

A dark grey car is seen stopped on a road. Several metres away, a vehicle is on fire.
A burning vehicle is seen in Culiacan on Thursday. Authorities urged people to stay indoors, and offices and schools were closed amid violence following Ovidio Guzman's arrest. (Reuters)

Joaquin Guzman, 65, was convicted in New York in 2019 of trafficking billions of dollars of drugs to the United States and conspiring to murder enemies.

Eduardo Guerrero, director of Lantia Consulting which analyzes Mexican organized crime, said that recent pressure from the Biden administration to target the Sinaloa Cartel had likely motivated Mexico to go after Guzman.

But he warned that while Ovidio's capture was likely to weaken that cartel, it could help their main rival, the notoriously violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

Crackdown on fentanyl

A surge in overdose deaths in the United States, fuelled by the synthetic opioid fentanyl, has led to increased pressure on Mexico to combat the organizations — such as the Sinaloa Cartel — responsible for producing and shipping the drug.

The cartel is one of the world's most powerful narcotics trafficking organizations.

For Tomas Guevara, a security expert at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, Guzman's arrest helps save face for Mexican law enforcement following the humiliation of having to let El Chapo's son go in 2019.

"The detention of Ovidio is finally the culmination of something that was planned three years ago," he said.

A woman with slicked-back hair and glasses speaks into a microphone.
Mexico's Secretary of Security and Citizen Protection Rosa Icela Rodriguez speaks during a news conference in Mexico City on Thursday. Guzman's arrest comes days before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden visit Mexico for a summit. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

It might also herald a change in approach by the government, Guevara added, after criticism from many security experts that Lopez Obrador was soft on the cartels, an accusation he denies.

The president argues the confrontational tactics of his predecessors were unsuccessful and only caused more bloodshed, saying he would instead pursue a strategy of "hugs not bullets."

The Associated Press and CBC News

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