By RICARDO CASTILLO
The positive side of spiking a hornets’ nest is that you get to see their number and check out the size of their sting.
This was what happened on Thursday, Oct. 17, in the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa, when the Mexican Army carried out the arrest of drug trafficker Ovidio Guzmán López, son and inheritor of the world-famous Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán Sinaloa drug cartel.
The arrest was an embarrassing legal blunder. The arresting officers appeared at the house of Ovidio Guzmán López ready to arrest him, which they did. The group of arresting officers included Army soldiers, National Guardsmen and Federal Police, as well as Interpol cops, who were on their way to Culiacán with an extradition warrant to the United States, where Ovidio faces charges of controlling several deadly opioid fentanyl manufacturing labs. One of those clandestine labs had been discovered by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) a few weeks before. The authorities tracked Ovidio down and surrounded him in his Culiacán home, where he lives with his wife and three small daughters. The arresting squad found out that he would home on that day and would show up for lunch at around 2 p.m., which he did.
The officers were in direct contact with the Fiscal General of the Republic’s office, which was to request a search and arrest warrant from a judge the moment Ovidio was arrested. Ovidio was placed in the house’s garage to wait for the search and arrest warrant. During the waiting period, Ovidio tried to negotiate his way out of arrest and was even allowed to call some of his people and his lawyer. No shots were fired.
The arresting group had also requested help from the local military zone. About 100 well-armed soldiers showed up and surrounded the perimeter of the house, located in the plush Tres Ríos neighborhood.
About half an hour after Ovidio Guzmán had been secured, all hell broke loose. A group of his Sinaloa drug cartel posted themselves outside of the perimeter of the soldiers, surrounding the house and opening fire. The Army soldiers fired back and the officers inside the house were taking fire, imperiling not only the prisoner himself, but his family as well. They were all protected with bullet-proof vests and the prisoner was dressed in military disguise.
The official military version and press reports is that the authorities were in control of the situation and could have resisted the fire coming from the drug cartel’s attackers. However, at the same time the gunmen moved on downtown Culiacán to start street blockades with vehicles ablaze. Also, in a military zone toward the state of Durango, known as El Fuerte, 200 kilometers east of Culiacán, and a group of gang members held up a convoy of military vehicles and stole a gasoline rig and placed it outside a development building where the families of soldiers live. They threatened to blow up the fuel-full rig.
The reaction of the cartel members was unexpected by authorities of all levels. The gangsters also threatened to shoot several innocent civilians they had nabbed if the arresting officers didn’t let Ovidio go. In their previous experience in the arrest of kingpin “El Chapo” Guzmán ,none of this had happened.
The ordeal lasted for about four hours, until top military brass decided to set Ovidio Guzmán free. Military sources say that it would have been feasible for the arresting group and the defending soldiers to take the prisoner to the Culiacán airport to fly him to the United States. They were expecting a lot of skirmishes along the way since the gunmen moved in small groups. But the cartel’s men threatened to execute all the kidnapped civilians and blow up the sequestered gas rig. The gangsters also took the Culiacán jail by assault and liberated over 50 prisoners, apparently all of them gang members who immediately joined the fray.
At around 6 p.m., the arrest operation was aborted and the soldiers were pulled out of the Tres Ríos complex, where local residents were reportedly – and who wouldn’t be – in a state of sheer terror. The ordeal ended as Ovidio Guzmán López was delivered to his henchmen, dressed in a military gear and blindfolded.
By that time, Culiacán and some minor towns were ablaze. In the aftermath of the ordeal, there was one dead soldier and nine wounded. The cartel gang also had many casualties, but they carried away, the majority of their dead leaving – according to official reports – five corpses lying around, which caused a most unusual military press release in which the act of leaving dead behind was deemed “a cowardly act.”
Incidentally, the search and arrest warrant never arrived.
Needless to say, the “Siege of Culiacán,” as some newscasts called it, caused outrage and a loud uproar across Mexico.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) said that when the top military brass as well as Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo decided to hand over the prisoner to Sinaloa cartel gang members, he approved of the move in order to save lives.
Even now, over a week later, opinions are divided over the tactic of avoiding further bloodshed by releasing Ovidio Guzmán.
It was clear that during the fray, the police and soldiers were momentarily outnumbered and outgunned by the gangsters.
But the outcome was that the Sinaloa Drug Cartel for the first time showed its face and weaponry – 80 percent imported from the good old USA – along with tactical expertise and even discipline.
The positive part of this nasty event is that now those in the battle against drugs know who and where the enemy is.
Will the authorities dare go after them on their turf in the Western Sierra Madre Mountains? The Army has already stationed – for starters – 200 elite combatants to patrol Culiacán in a clear sign that this first embarrassing chapter is not the end of the war against the Sinaloa Drug Cartel.