A bloody, prolonged shootout between Mexican security forces and suspected cartel members in Sinaloa state this week was an intentional — and ultimately abandoned — attempt to capture a son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman for extradition to the United States, Mexican officials now say.
Troops did temporarily detain Ovidio Guzman Lopez during Thursday’s operation in the city of Culiacan, officials said. But as the battle dragged on, he was released and the operation was suspended to save lives, the country’s defense secretary and security minister said Friday.
The battle, which sent families hiding in terror for hours, left seven people dead: Five “aggressors,” one Mexican National Guard member, and one civilian, Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said on Twitter.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador acknowledged Friday that security forces went to Culiacan to capture the son on a judge’s order. Mexico’s Security Cabinet eventually suspended the operation “to protect the lives of the people,” he said.
He did not deny, when pressed by reporters, that Ovidio Guzman Lopez was released.
“The capture of a criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of the people … many citizens, people, human beings were at risk,” López Obrador said during a press briefing in Oaxaca.”
Nine government soldiers or law enforcement officers who were captured by the suspected cartel members during the battle were released when the government stopped the operation, Mexican Secretary of National Defense Luis Cresencio said Friday during a news conference in Sinaloa.
The troops’ intent was to arrest Guzman Lopez for extradition to the United States, Durazo, the security minister, said Friday.
Panicked residents flee
The attempt to capture Guzman Lopez unleashed chaos in Culiacan.
The battle started Thursday afternoon, when law enforcement officers and members of the Mexican National Guard took control of a house with four occupants, Durazo said late Thursday. One of the occupants was Ovidio Guzman Lopez, authorities said.
Other members of a criminal group arrived on scene, with more firepower than authorities, including .50-caliber machine guns. Violent attacks erupted in different parts of the city creating “a situation of panic,” Durazo said.
Armored vehicles with military-grade machinery fired heavy artillery against federal troops, according to CNN affiliate ADN40.
Many residents fled in panic while others remained locked in their homes as troops engaged in intense gun battles throughout the day. Residents were asked to stay inside, and schools have been closed until further notice, officials said.
Images on social media appeared to show the terror unleashed on the inhabitants of Culiacan. Plumes of black smoke billowed on the horizon while on the ground, mothers coddled their children while searching for cover behind parked cars.
Durazo announced late Thursday that the government suspended the operation.
Initially, Durazo said the battle began when federal troops were conducting a routine patrol, and that people inside the home attacked them. When the troops fought back, they found Guzman Lopez inside the home, Durazo said Thursday.
López Obrador’s statements on Friday, however, contradict Durazo’s assertion that it was a routine patrol.
Who is Ovidio Guzman Lopez?
Ovidio Guzman Lopez is the son of Guzman and his second wife, Griselda Lopez. He is a kingpin in the Sinaloa cartel, according to the US Treasury Department.
In February, Ovidio Guzman Lopez was charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs to be imported into the US, along with his brother Joaquin Guzman Lopez, 34, by the US Department of Justice.
Prosecutors said that from April 2008 through April 2018, the brothers conspired to distribute cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine from Mexico and other places to be imported into the US.
In July, their father — the once-powerful leader of the Sinaloa cartel — was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in the US.
Guzman was convicted in February on 10 federal charges, including murder conspiracies, running a continuing criminal enterprise and other drug-related charges.
In 2015 he dramatically escaped from prison, riding on a motorcycle through a tunnel that had been dug to his cell at the Altiplano maximum security federal prison.
Ray Donovan, the DEA special agent who spearheaded the 22-agency effort that led to Guzman’s capture, told CNN in February that the Sinaloa cartel still supplies most US drug markets.
“In fact, Chapo’s sons are now risen through the ranks of the Sinaloa cartel and taken over Chapo’s end of the organization,” he said.
CNN’s Natalie Gallón reported from Mexico City, Jason Hanna wrote in Atlanta, and Helen Regan wrote in Hong Kong. CNN’s Leyla Santiago contributed from Washington, Maria Santana from New York, and Helena DeMoura from Atlanta.