Mexico’s fight against organized crime takes a dark turn after urban warfare in Culiacán
“Back to normal,” read the headline in one major Mexican newspaper on Oct. 21, the article flanked by a photo of several military vehicles driving into Culiacán. Whether ironic or a bleak prediction of things to come, the headline echoed the sentiment among many that the country may be on the verge of a new, darker and more violent chapter in its more than a decade-old drug war.
Mexico is on edge after a wave of violence hit the country last week, culminating in heavy fighting between the army and alleged members of organized crime in Culiacán, the capital of the northern state of Sinaloa, that lasted for hours on Oct. 17. The attacks followed earlier shootouts in the central states of Michoacán, where 14 police officers were killed on Oct. 14, and in Guerrero two days later, where 15 people were killed, one police officer and 14 alleged gang members.
Both the violence and the federal government’s response to it, perceived by many as insufficient, have sparked an anxious public debate about whether Mexico is losing ground in its ongoing struggle against organized crime. Last week’s events cast a shadow over the security policies of president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who assumed office last year with the promise of significantly reducing violence and bringing an end to the drug war, a struggle which, according to some estimates, has cost close to 300,000 lives since 2006.
“Officially, there is no more war,” the president said in February. “We want peace.”
But after last week’s attacks, critics do not believe the president.
“The [drug] war isn’t over,” Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst and academic in Mexico City told America. “We’re still there, with organized crime groups wielding the same power, with the same tactics we know aren’t working, with the same lies of the politicians.”
“The [drug] war isn’t over. We’re still there, with organized crime groups wielding the same power, with the same tactics we know aren’t working, with the same lies of the politicians.”
Mexico is no stranger to extreme violence, but the attacks in Culiacán may represent a watershed moment that casts a dark, new reality over the country’s struggle against drug trafficking groups. The fighting in the Sinaloan capital was more akin to urban guerrilla warfare than policing. Moreover, the urban battle appeared to have been won by organized crime.
The fighting erupted after soldiers and elements of the National Guard, in a seemingly fortuitous event after taking gunfire from a safehouse, arrested Ovidio Guzmán López. Mr. Guzmán is the 28-year-old son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, one of the world’s most notorious crime lords and co-founder of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, which has its base in the state of the same name. The elder Mr. Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison in the United States earlier this year. His sons reportedly continue to run the cartel after his 2016 arrest and extradition to the United States in 2017.
Within hours of Ovidio Guzmán’s arrest, scores of gunmen sporting bullet proof vests and automatic rifles swarmed the soldiers and National Guard in Culiacán, blocked major avenues and thoroughfares in the city by setting cars and tires on fire and sent civilians scrambling for cover in panic. According to some reports, soldiers had even been taken hostage. By the end of the afternoon, the streets of Culiacán were all but deserted, businesses, schools and government buildings had closed, flights at the airport were canceled and thick plumes of black smoke rose above buildings.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. How are we supposed to live like this?” one man, who asked to remain anonymous, said that evening as he sought shelter in the lobby of a hotel near the Culiacán’s Forum shopping mall, where some of the heaviest fighting occurred.
Mr. Guzmán was ultimately released after four hours, federal authorities confirmed that evening. According to Alfonso Durazo, the federal Secretary for Public Security, the government decided to “suspend further actions to safeguard the citizens of Culiacán.”
“What happened in Culiacán, I think, is clearly unprecedented,” Everard Meade, the director of the Trans-Border Institute in San Diego, told America. “There have been outbreaks of violence in the city before, such as in 2008, during the rupture of two factions within the Sinaloa Cartel, but it wasn’t an army of gunmen against the Mexican army in the middle of the afternoon in a major city.”
“There have been outbreaks of violence in the city before, but it wasn’t an army of gunmen against the Mexican army in the middle of the afternoon in a major city.”
Mr. Meade said that the attacks in Culiacán added a degree of terror to gangland warfare rarely seen in Mexico since the drug war started in the early 21st century. “There has been a transition from old fashioned mafias using violence to safeguard secrets to the strategic imposition of terror.”
The massive, rolling gun battle in Culiacán was shocking for the openness of the government's capitulation and the brazenness of gunmen who drove machine-gun mounted armored trucks through the streets. But in state after state, the Mexican government long ago relinquished effective control of whole towns, cities and regions to the drug cartels.
“They are the law here. If you have a problem, you go to them. They solve it quickly,” said a young mother in the town of El Aguaje, in western Michoacan state. El Aguaje is so completely controlled by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel that the young wife of lime-grove worker—who would not give her name for fear of reprisals—cannot turn to police: They are too afraid to enter the town.
When a convoy of Michoacan state police did make a rare appearance in El Aguaje on Oct 14, they were ambushed and slaughtered by Jalisco cartel gunmen—police officers were shot or burned to death in their vehicles. When police returned to recover the burned-out patrol vehicles the next day, they were in such a hurry to accomplish their task that they left behind the crushed, burned, bullet-pierced skull of one of their colleagues lying on the ground.
In the neighboring town of El Terrero, meanwhile, the rival New Michoacan Family cartel and its armed wing, the Viagras—who control that side of the river—have daubed their initials on houses and lamp posts, and last week burned several trucks and buses to block the bridge and prevent a Jalisco cartel incursion.
In some cases, the government has even defended cartel boundaries, apparently as part of its strategy of avoiding bloodshed at all costs.
The events in Culiacán raised serious questions about the federal government’s capacity to combat organized crime. Mr. López Obrador ran a successful presidential campaign last year on the promise of fighting corruption and reducing violence. Using the phrase “hugs, not bullets,” Mr. López Obrador floated the idea of an amnesty for low-level drug offenders and retiring the military from law enforcement operations.
Once in office, however, he has primarily continued his predecessors’ often criticized tactics of employing soldiers and federal police to combat organized crime. Moreover, the government created a new paramilitary police force, the National Guard, which is intended to replace the army and navy’s role in security operations within the next few years. The National Guard has been criticized, however, for being mostly a military style force under military command.
Among the general public, the Mexican army and navy have been among the most trusted institutions for years and have been in charge of nearly all major operations against organized crime, including the killing or capture of dozens of kingpins. In Culiacán, however, the army appeared overwhelmed by the sheer force of the Sinaloa Cartel’s gunmen and poorly prepared for the consequences of Ovidio Guzmán’s arrest.
“From a basic counterterrorism perspective, and let’s face it, some of the drug traffickers are terrorists by Mexican law, even if their organizations aren’t, the events in Culiacán showed the Mexico military doesn’t have the power or planning capacity to just arrest alleged leading criminals when the United States reportedly wants them to,” said Malcolm Beith, a journalist and author of The Last Narco, a book chronicling the search for “El Chapo” Guzmán. “They still need U.S. support and [Mexican] Marines conducting operations.”
Critics say the Mexican government’s seemingly confusing communications about the fighting in Culiacán also dealt a blow to the credibility of the López Obrador administration. Days after the fighting died down, it was still unclear how many people had died in the clashes, while the government had not yet confirmed that Ovidio Guzmán had been officially arrested in the first place.
“I think the federal government handled communication miserably,” Mr. Meade said. “They said things that were false; they contradicted themselves. It was a huge mistake.”
The Mexican Catholic church weighed in on Oct. 18 in a press release from the Culiacán Diocese. “We want to move from a reasonable frustration and social outrage to a proposal and forceful action that ensures unity and social peace for the Sinaloans and brothers of other parts of our country,” the statement read, adding that the church expressed its “profound gratitude for those who, with great empathy and spirit of faith, have taken in and helped many citizens who were at risk, and, together with the institutions, safeguarded their security.”
But according to Mr. Bravo Regidor, the plan of action the bishops implore to address the security crisis does not currently exist.
“The new authorities are ignorant, improvising and incompetent. The operation was a miserable failure. So was the communication afterwards,” he said. “They didn’t plan; they didn’t foresee; they didn’t prepare. And later, they lied. The message is very clear: Everything was a fiasco.”
With reporting from The Associated Press
Correction Oct. 22, 2019; 11:53 a.m. EDT: Due to an editing error, the original version of this Dispatch reported that 15 police officers had been killed in the Mexican state of Guerrero in violence on Oct. 16. Though there were 15 deaths in the incident, only one was a police officer. The remaining 14 have been described by Mexican authorities as gang members.