Massive Gun Battle Erupts In Mexico Over Son Of Drug Kingpin 'El Chapo'

Oct 18, 2019
Originally published on October 18, 2019 7:51 pm

Updated at 10 a.m. ET

Heavily armed gunmen went on a shooting rampage through the city of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state on Mexico's Pacific coast, battling security forces after authorities attempted to arrest a son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.

The gunfire from what appeared to be sniper rifles and truck-mounted machine guns sent residents of the western city scrambling for cover. Burning vehicles littered the streets as the gunmen faced off against the National Guard, army and police.

Mexico's security secretary, Alfonso Durazo, said the fighting began when about 30 National Guard and army troops patrolling the city were fired on from a house occupied by Ovidio Guzmán López, who is wanted in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges.

Durazo said the security forces took control of the house and found Guzmán, who is also known as "El Ratón," inside. Soon after, the house was surrounded by "a greater force" of heavily armed gunmen and the troops withdrew.

"With the goal of safeguarding the well-being and tranquility of Culiacán society, officials in the security Cabinet decided to suspend the actions," he said.

Durazo did not initially specify whether authorities arrested Guzmán or let him go. Media outlets in Mexico later reported that for government had released the fugitive.

Shortly after the confrontation, gunmen – some wearing black masks — took off on a rampage, driving through the city in trucks firing heavy caliber weapons.

Videos posted to social media show multiple gunmen shooting down major thoroughfares. Residents abandoning cars and burning vehicles are seen on multiple roads.

A 2014 photo of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán being escorted to a helicopter in Mexico City following his capture.
Eduardo Verdugo / AP

Cristóbal Castañeda, the public safety director for Sinaloa state, told Milenio television that people had been wounded in the firing, but gave no figures. He did not rule out that there were deaths, according to The Associated Press.

El Chapo was tried this year in a U.S. court and sentenced to life in prison. His sons have reportedly taken over the Sinaloa drug cartel, considered Mexico's most powerful organized crime syndicate.

José Luis González Meza, a lawyer speaking on behalf of the Guzmán family, told the AP that "Ovidio is alive and free," but he did not elaborate.

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

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Mexican security forces are facing criticism for freeing the son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. They let him go after cartel hitmen led an hours-long siege on the capital of Sinaloa state. Critics say the government is giving the green light to drug traffickers operating in Mexico. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Authorities say they were trying to capture one of "Chapo" Guzman's sons in the city of Culiacan yesterday. When some 30 officers arrived at a house in an upscale neighborhood to execute an arrest warrant, they came under fire. Eventually, the troops were able to enter the house and capture Guzman's son, 28-year-old Ovidio Guzman Lopez. But soon after, cartel reinforcements arrived, and the federal forces were quickly outnumbered. Head of Mexico's public security ministry Alfonso Durazo says the officers did not prepare enough for the operation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALFONSO DURAZO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "To take what happened and to conclude that the Mexican state has failed or the system failed is wrong. What failed was the operation," he says. Military officials at a press conference in Sinaloa say the federal forces, many members of the newly formed National Guard, went in to capture the younger Guzman without approval from their superiors or sufficient backup. Not only did the cartel send in reinforcements to rescue Ovidio Guzman, the gunmen unleashed hours of terror and firepower on the capital city of nearly a million people.

Heavily armed gunmen sent a barrage of bullets down major thoroughfares, sending residents fleeing for cover. Vehicles were set on fire at strategic points in the city to prevent military reinforcements from arriving. And one video circulating on social media showed a man operating a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the back of a truck. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says, with such violence raging throughout the city and federal forces outgunned, the military troops did what they had to to reduce the risk of more bloodshed. They let Guzman go. The capture of one criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of people, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We have no doubt that this was the best decision," says Lopez Obrador. The president, too, dismissed criticism of the military's handling of Guzman's capture. Lopez Obrador has long stated his opposition to combating drug trafficking with a strong military force. He says, instead, the root causes of violence must be tackled - wiping out corruption and alleviating poverty. He says he believes in hugs not bullets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The use of force, violence, massacres hasn't brought results," he says, "and we're not going to change our policy." And he calls his critics conservatives and enemies. Mexico's murder rate has hit historic levels. The homicide rate is on track to top last year's with more than 30,000 killed. Carlos Bravo Regidor, a Mexico City-based political analyst, says the president is in denial and needs to deal with this unprecedented violence.

CARLOS BRAVO REGIDOR: The president seems to believe that a long-term solution is enough to deal with an urgent, immediate problem. He has no policy to deal with the emergency that we're dealing with today.

KAHN: It's unclear where Ovidio Guzman Lopez is now. A family lawyer has told local media he's safe and with his family. The U.S. wants him, however, to stand trial. Early this year, an indictment was unsealed in Washington charging Guzman with cocaine and methamphetamine trafficking.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.