Mexico’s fight against organized crime takes a dark turn after urban warfare in Culiacán

Clouds of smoke from burning cars mar the skyline of Culiacan, Mexico. The Mexican city lived under drug cartel terror for 12 hours as gang members forced the government to free a drug lord. (AP Photo/Hector Parra)Clouds of smoke from burning cars mar the skyline of Culiacan, Mexico. The Mexican city lived under drug cartel terror for 12 hours as gang members forced the government to free a drug lord. (AP Photo/Hector Parra)

“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.

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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.

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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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month ago

Amazing ....we are all worried about and discussing the US role in stabilizing Syria while on our own Southern Border in Mexico there seems to be an outbreak of an actual civil war!

JR Cosgrove
3 weeks 5 days ago

Mexico has extremely strict gun control laws that makes it almost impossible for someone to have a gun to defend themselves against criminals. There is only one gun store in the country. If the criminals came into some US town like described above, most would probably leave dead. That is one major reason why such an event has never happened. Question: How many Mexicans would still be alive if the gun regulations were different?

William Bannon
1 month ago

The last three Popes wrote fiction on the death penalty ( prisons are now safe all over) which death penalty, Mexico does not have nor does Brazil nor all of the snake formation of dysfunctional countries winding from Brazil to Mexico. And if Francis had his way, they would not have life sentences either. Guatemala indicts 4% of their murderers...indicts...just to hold a trial. And they have no functioning death penalty.
China has a murder rate of .60 per 100,000...with a quickly done death penalty...(2 years)....and she has reduced the reasons for execution and thus is tempering herself. Her murder rate is .60 and Mexico’s is 24 and Brazil’s is 30...per 100,000. Mexico thus has 40 times the murder rate of China and not one Pope indicated he had any idea of that horrible relationship. Brazil has 50 times the murder rate of China. Catholic intellect in this area has been on vacation since 1997. A Catholic family is astronomically safer from murder by vacationing in China or Japan rather than in the two largest Catholic populations....Brazil and Mexico....both non death penalty. Europe and e.g. Vermont are very safe due to no ghettoized poor as you find in Brazil, Mexico, parts of the USA where the ghetto is half the murders of the usa. If China took over just the justice departments of Brazil and Mexico, China would gradually protect c.75,000 human beings from murder yearly. Post Catholic non death penalty northern Latin America has the highest murder rate in the world as region by UN figures available at wiki....and non death penalty Africa is second worst. Asia, death penalty dominant...is the safest with millions of poor whereas Europe is second due to having no radical poor and far less deterrence need of a death penalty.

JR Cosgrove
4 weeks 1 day ago

When will the Church take responsibility for the dysfunctional countries its social policies generate? They are not the only countries that are dysfunctional but nearly everyone that flowed from Spain and Portugal has been. Why? Yet these same clerics want to change the world as evidence in the Amazon Synod. To what? Is Venezuela a warning as the current Jesuit superior was partly responsible? The Jesuits were also largely responsible for Zimbabwe. Where's the Church's track record of good results? Answer: hardly anywhere.

Dionys Murphy
4 weeks ago

"When will the Church take responsibility for the dysfunctional countries its social policies generate" - When it's their policies rather than long standing political US policies and interventions.

JR Cosgrove
3 weeks 5 days ago

Every Latin American country was dysfunctional since the start. Some have progressed in recent years but many still remain dysfunctional. There was little involvement by the US in Latin America till the late 1800's and none before the mid 1800's except for Mexico. So blaming the US is a bogus argument made because some reflexively blame the US for everything. There were some predatory US companies for a relatively short time in some places in Latin America. But they were predatory because the countries were dysfunctional.

JR Cosgrove
3 weeks 5 days ago

We did intervene strenuously in Mexico in territory that became the United States. One can then compare the places which became part of the United States with Mexico as it evolved.

Dionys Murphy
4 weeks ago

"China has a murder rate of .60 per 100,000...with a quickly done death penalty..."

Correlation is not causation. Holding up China as a bastion of human rights and protection should be embarrassing for any functioning adult.

William Bannon
3 weeks 6 days ago

Nice....you’re against the death penalty of Rom.13:4 but you are in favor of manipulative emotional relating. Check on China’s history of price reducing on drugs....and on their reducing poverty in the last several decades.
China’s sins against religion has context in the Taiping rebellion wherein a Chinese Christian and his forces managed to cause 20 million dead mid 19th century. And it is rooted in France having been the Vatican rep in China during the Opium war number two which by superior guns...opened all Chinese provinces to missionaries and British opium dealing thru India simultaneously. Opium and religion were forced on China by the same European people. Prime Minister William Gladstone denounced the greedy adventure and said he was...” in dread of the judgments of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China".
Do you suspect that caused blockage against the Church? What if your home country was invaded by China who then forced all of your provinces to be open to a Chinese ideology plus be open to their selling heroin in every province. Do you think you’d have blockage against that ideology because of the partnered activity of heroin dealing? Martin Heidegger noted that beauty vanishes in the prescence of fear. A park with cherry blossoms has beauty which vanishes if you are being mugged in that park. Likewise religion-beauty vanishes in the context of abuse.

William Bannon
1 month ago

.

Jim Smith
4 weeks 1 day ago

How about this?
One or some Catholic evangelist appointed to call upon all drug lords and henchmen to repentance.
Those who do not respond, charge them with their crimes and put them on trial, whether they appear or not regardless of legal representation or none. This could be done after proclamation of martial law throughout the country and use of military tribunal processes.
Those convicted to be given the death penalty by firing squad.
A reward for their killing or capture announced.

The likely result would be internecine warfare for the rewards and only one or a small few emerge still alive.
Those could then be hunted down or have all assets frozen and freedom of movement restricted.

They are a national and international cancer and need to be surgically removed by a just war.

Tim Donovan
3 weeks 6 days ago

As a pro-life advocate, I oppose capital punishment not only for moral reasons (I believe in showing mercy even to those truly guilty of murder) but for two other reasons as well. First, for years I have been a pen pal with a man serving life in prison for a serious crime. From our correspondence, I',m convinced that my friend, who is a devout Jehovah's Witness has reformed his life. I believe that he and others who have demonstrated reform should be permitted to live in a decent environment. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has documented that between 1975 and 2015, 148 death row inmates in 26 states. have been found innocent of crime. I might point out that I strongly disagree with the ACLU's vehement advocacy of the violence of legal abortion. Also, black men are much more likely to be executed for murder than white men. I believe that this indicates racial discrimination in the application of capital punisment. Finally, with the lack of human and religious rights in China, I agree that China is a poor example of a nation that is good to emulate for how to fight crime.

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