MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended security forces on Friday over their handling of a shocking outbreak of drug violence, saying they had saved lives by releasing a son of jailed kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after his bungled arrest.
Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds his daily news conference in Oaxaca, Mexico October 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Luis Plata
Cartel gunmen surrounded security forces in the northwestern city of Culiacan on Thursday and made them free the drug lord’s son Ovidio Guzman, after his brief capture triggered gun battles and a jailbreak that stunned the country.
The chaos in Culiacan, long a stronghold for the Guzmans’ Sinaloa Cartel, raised pressure on Lopez Obrador, who took office in December promising to pacify a country weary of more than a decade of gang violence, disappearances and shootouts.
Lopez Obrador, who came under strong criticism overnight on social media that he had caved in to the gang, vigorously defended the government response, although he emphasized it was his security cabinet that made the decision to release Guzman’s son.
“Capturing a criminal can’t be worth more than people’s lives,” he said, noting that officials “did well” to free Ovidio Guzman. “We’re doing really well in our strategy,” said Lopez Obrador, a veteran leftist who has advocated a less confrontational approach to tackling the gangs.
The violent reaction to Guzman’s detention was on a scale rarely seen during Mexico’s long drug war, even after his more famous father’s arrests.
Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval told a news conference that he had reports of at least eight people killed, including five suspected gang members, in Culiacan, a city of nearly 1 million people in Sinaloa state.
Footage on social media of panicked residents fleeing and high caliber gunfire ringing out dealt a stiff blow to Lopez Obrador.
At the center of his strategy has been the creation of new National Guard, but thousands of that militarized police force’s members have instead been sent to contain illegal immigration through Mexico at the behest of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Security experts were highly critical.
Gladys McCormick, a security analyst at Syracuse University in the United States, said in a statement the latest news from Mexico read like that of a country in “the throes of war.”
“What is incontrovertible is that the Sinaloa Cartel won yesterday’s battle,” she added. “Not only did they get the government to release Ovidio, they demonstrated to the citizens of Culiacán as well as the rest of Mexico who is in control.”
Chaos in Culiacan continued into the night after a large group of inmates also escaped from the city prison on Thursday. Residents cowered in shopping centers and supermarkets as gunfire roared. Black plumes of smoke rose across the skyline.
Lopez Obrador rejected the suggestion the government had acted weakly in releasing the younger Guzman, describing this view as “conjecture” put about by his adversaries to hurt him.
A trenchant critic of past administrations, Lopez Obrador said the previous strategy had turned Mexico into a “graveyard” and that his critics wanted him to continue with it.
He argues that authorities should focus more on the root causes of drug violence, such as poverty and a lack of jobs.
Still, the murder tally in Mexico this year is on track to surpass last year’s record total of more than 29,000.
Lopez Obrador said security forces had swooped on the house in Culiacan to capture Ovidio Guzman after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest and extradition.
That contradicted the version put out on Thursday by the government, which was that the officers had come under fire from the house while passing, then found Guzman inside.
Defense minister Sandoval later acknowledged that security forces had set out to capture Ovidio Guzman but that the operation was carried out “hastily.”
Thursday’s events followed the massacre of more than a dozen police in western Mexico earlier this week, and the killing of 14 suspected gangsters by the army a day later.
The elder Guzman escaped from prison in Mexico twice, in 2001 and 2015. Under the previous administration security forces captured him two times in Sinaloa, in 2014 and 2016.
The previous government extradited him to the United States on the eve of President Donald Trump’s accession. He was found guilty in a U.S. court in February of smuggling tons of drugs and sentenced to life in prison.
Joaquin Guzman is believed to have about 12 children including Ovidio. The U.S. Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against Ovidio and another of the brothers in February, charging them with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the United States.
Reporting by Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz; Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Frances Kerry