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Arrest of El Chapo’s son sparks new wave of violence in Sinaloa

Scenes of violent clashes between security forces and members of organized crime recalled the bungled operation to arrest Ovidio Guzmán in 2019, but authorities confirmed that the drug lord was successfully transferred to a Mexico City military base.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — The capital of the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa awoke Thursday morning to gunfights, roadblocks and other violent reactions to the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, son of the notorious drug dealer Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. 

The events in Culiacán come just days ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit to Mexico City to attend the North American Leaders’ Summit next week, and just over three years after an attempt to capture Guzmán led to similar confrontations between Mexican security forces and heavily armed members of the Sinaloa Cartel in October 2019. 

That fighting led Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to release Guzmán before he could be extracted, a move his critics decried as illegal and revealing of where his loyalty lies. Said loyalty was questioned again in May 2020 when a video surfaced of López Obrador shaking hands with El Chapo’s mother and confirming that he had received a letter she had sent him.

Videos and photos shared on social media Thursday revealed scenes of terrifying violence in Culiacán Thursday morning. From army helicopters spraying red-hot streams of artillery fire over residential areas before sunrise to airline employees taking cover as armed men infiltrate the city’s airport. Various airlines and bus companies announced the suspension of their services in Culiacán in response to the violence.

While speculation online has pointed out the timing of the arrest just days before the summit, the two are most likely not connected, according to security analyst David Saucedo. Such operations require months of planning to take down high-ranking members of organized crime. 

Originally scheduled for December, the summit was postponed after López Obrador announced plans to visit Peru, a trip that was ultimately canceled after the turmoil caused by the removal of that country’s president. 

“There wasn’t pressure from Joe Biden, but there has been pressure from the U.S. ever since Guzmán was released [in 2019],” said Saucedo. This pressure led to the arrest of Rafael Caro Quintero, wanted by the U.S. for drug trafficking and his suspected role in the murder of a DEA agent in 1985. 

“From a tactical perspective, it looks like the operation was a success,” he said. 

National Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval later confirmed Guzmán's successful transfer to Mexico City, calling the operation a "forceful blow" to the Sinaloa Cartel.

Comments about the news on social media revealed that some citizens were worried about violence breaking out in the nation’s capital in response to Guzmán’s transfer. However, Saucedo said that the drug lord’s detention on a military base greatly reduces the chances of seeing echoes of the violence in Culiacán on Mexico City streets. 

Whether or not López Obrador expected Guzmán’s organization to respond as it did in 2019 is unclear. He was attending an event celebrating the bicentenary of Mexico’s Heroic Military Academy at the time of the operation. The live stream was cut during an opening speech just over half an hour into the ceremony, and the video was later taken down from the president’s YouTube channel.

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