Mexico’s defense minister said Friday a botched attempt to arrest the son of convicted drug kingpin El Chapo had been poorly and hastily planned, triggering a deadly gun battle with armed civilians and a failure to capture the target.
Defense Secretary Luís Cresencio Sandoval said at least five attackers, a member of the National Guard, a civilian and a prisoner were killed in the melee that erupted Thursday in Culiacan, in the northwest Mexican state of Sinaloa.
The clash between the heavily armed fighters and the security police turned the city into a free-fire zone, with residents cowering in cars and supermarkets.
The security force team was attempting to arrest Ovidio Guzmán López, a son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the convicted Sinaloa Cartel boss, after a judge in Mexico issued a warrant for his arrest and extradition to the U.S.
Speaking to reporters, the defense minister said the organizers of the raid “acted in a precipitous manner, with poor planning, and lack of foresight about the consequences of the intervention,” according to the network Televisa.
Security Minister Alfonso Durazo, who also attended the news conference, called the raid a “failure.”
Authorities said that Guzmán, after initially being taken into custody, was freed to defuse the deadly assault on the town.
At one point, armed civilians in trucks roared through the city’s center shooting what appeared to be .50-caliber sniper rifles and machine guns, according to the Associated Press.
Heavily armed masked fighters also set up roadblocks and attacked an army headquarters, a state police facility and a surveillance post.
Numerous videos of the clashes, with fighters riding in pickup trucks and firing at will, were posted on Twitter.
Culiacan, the scene of the shootout, is in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, which is home to the drug cartel by the same name. The Sinaloa drug ring was led by El Chapo, who was sentenced to life in prison in the United States in July.
Ovidio Guzmán, the target of the operation, was not one of El Chapo’s best-known sons — Iván Archivaldo Guzmán and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán, who are are known as “los Chapitos,” or “the little Chapos.” Those sons are believed to currently run their father’s cartel together with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
Ovidio Guzmán was indicted in 2018 by a grand jury in Washington, along with a fourth brother, for the alleged trafficking of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.
— Juan Pablo Pérez Díaz (@PerezDiazMX) October 17, 2019
Durazo, the security minister, told Reuters the decision to pull back from the house without Guzman was taken “to try to avoid more violence in the area and preserve the lives of our personnel and recover calm in the city.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Friday the army operation was based on an arrest warrant, adding that he backed the decisions of his security officials.
“The capture of one criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of people,” the Mexican president said, calling the response to the operation “very violent” and saying many lives were put at risk.
“This decision was made to protect citizens. … You cannot fight fire with fire,” he added. “We do not want deaths. We do not want war.”
José Luis González Meza, a lawyer for El Chapo’s family, said “Ovidio is alive and free” but he had no more details about what happened.