Mexico: 29 people dead in operation to arrest son of ‘El Chapo’

Ten soldiers are among those killed during arrest of drug kingpin’s son, which sparks violence by cartel, government says.

At least 29 people, including 10 soldiers, have been killed in an operation to arrest the son of jailed Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s government says after a shootout with cartel members.

Ovidio Guzman, nicknamed “El Raton”, or “The Mouse”, was rounded up early on Thursday in the northern state of Sinaloa and flown to Mexico City on a military plane.

“Ten members of the military … unfortunately lost their lives in the line of duty,” Defence Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval told reporters on Friday, adding 19 “lawbreakers” were also killed in the operation. Another 35 soldiers sustained gunshot wounds.

Members of the Sinaloa Cartel and their associates went on a rampage after Ovidio Guzman’s arrest, fighting security forces, setting vehicles on fire and blocking roads across the Pacific coastal state.

The violence was concentrated in and around Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, home of the powerful drug cartel, which “El Chapo” headed before his capture in 2016 and extradition to the United States in 2017.

Firefighters extinguish a fire of a vehicle after violence in Mexico
Firefighters extinguish a vehicle set ablaze by drug cartel members in Mazatlan, Mexico, on January 5, 2023 [Stringer/Reuters]

Twenty-one other people were arrested during Thursday’s operations, Sandoval said during a news conference, adding there were no reports of any civilian deaths.

The arrest of Ovidio Guzman, 32, followed six months of intelligence work to track him down, the government said, and he is now being held at a maximum security federal prison.

Sandoval said a passenger plane that was just about to take off from Culiacan airport and two air force aircraft were hit as members of the Sinaloa Cartel launched the offensive to rescue Ovidio Guzman.

The air force planes “had to make an emergency landing” after receiving “a significant number of impacts”, Sandoval said. No one was injured.

An enhanced security presence will now remain in place in Sinaloa, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, to protect the public, with an additional 1,000 military personnel travelling to the region today, the minister added.

Reporting from Mexico City, Al Jazeera’s John Holman said the situation in Culiacan appeared to have calmed down on Friday with vehicles driving on the streets again.

Asked whether the younger Guzman’s arrest would rein in the work of the drug cartels, Holman said past arrests of leaders have shown that “the strategy of knocking out kingpins and hoping that that means the whole structure falls apart has been shown to just not work.”

“What’s happened on various different occasions is either it just carries on, or the organisations splinter into different groups,” Holman said.

“El Chapo”, which means “Shorty”, is serving a life sentence in the US for trafficking hundreds of tonnes of drugs into the country over the course of 25 years.

However, his cartel remains one of the most powerful in Mexico, accused by Washington of exploiting an opioid epidemic by flooding communities with fentanyl, a synthetic drug about 50 times more potent than heroin.

Ovidio Guzman and one of his brothers are accused of overseeing nearly a dozen methamphetamine labs in Sinaloa as well as conspiring to distribute cocaine and marijuana, according to the US Department of State.

He also allegedly ordered the murders of informants, a drug trafficker and a Mexican singer who refused to perform at his wedding, the department said.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said there were no immediate plans to extradite Ovidio Guzman to the US.

“The elements [of the case] have to be presented and the judges in Mexico decide,” he said on Friday. “It is a process … It is not just the request.”

Ovidio Guzman was arrested just days before US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are to meet with the Mexican president, known as AMLO, in Mexico City for two days of talks.

While Mexican officials have tried to downplay the timing of the operation, Al Jazeera’s Holman said many observers are sceptical. “Every time one of these big meetings happens, usually the Mexican government tries to get some sort of big win – either in terms of capturing drugs or trying to capture some sort of boss,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies