Airports, highways, schools and offices across the state of Sinaloa ground to a halt Thursday morning when gunfire and explosions were felt across the city as the military descended on a house to find one man: Ovidio Guzmán — one of the sons of famed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
In 2019, a similar operation ended with the government detaining but releasing Ovidio in a spectacular reversal that was an international embarrassment. The government was determined not to make the same mistake this time. Ovidio was transported via helicopter to Mexico City hours after he was captured as violence and looting roiled across the state of Sinaloa, home to the eponymous cartel his father helped found and that he and his three brothers now run.
Ovidio, along with his brother Joaquín, 36, and half-brothers Iván Archivaldo, 39 and Jesús Alfredo, 36, have taken over the running of a significant part of the cartel since their father was arrested and extradited to the U.S. in 2017.
The brothers are known collectively as “Los Chapitos”—the little Chapos—and have a reputation as hyper-violent millennials who command fear but not respect from local residents and business associates alike.
But Ovidio, 32, who is known by the nicknames “El Bebé,” which means “the Baby,” as well as “El Ratón,” or “the Mouse,” could be the weakest link to the world’s most powerful cartel, despite his cinematic capture. Security experts as well as sources in Sinaloa say that his brothers, especially Iván Archivaldo, have much more influence, and that his detention will likely make little dent in the cartel’s operations.
“He’s important because family is the driving force behind the Sinaloa Cartel. Bloodlines are important,” said Alejandro Hope, a security expert based in Mexico City. “But was he the most important member of his cartel? I don’t think so. Will this change the structure of the cartel? I’m skeptical. Does this have a significant effect on drug flows? Most likely not.”
But Ovidio’s detention is a significant and symbolic victory for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also often referred to by his initials AMLO) just days before President Joe Biden will visit Mexico City to meet with the leaders of Mexico and Canada. It was also a strong rebuttal to critics who accuse López Obrador of everything from having a secret pact with the Sinaloa Cartel to going soft on criminals with the slogan he surged into office with: Hugs not bullets.
A total of 29 people were killed during the arrest of Ovidio in Culiacán, including ten soldiers and 19 alleged cartel members, Mexico's Defense Minister, Luis Cresencio Sandoval said on Friday. A further 21 people were arrested.
“Through intelligence work to locate criminals in the country we managed to arrest Ovidio, after more than six months of following his illicit activities,” Cresencio Sandoval said at a press conference following the cartel leader’s arrest.
The Mexican National Guard, along with the Mexican Army, identified a convoy of pick-up trucks with makeshift armor and followed them to the outskirts of Culiacán, Cresencio Sandoval said.
One former senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico said the timing of the arrest ahead of Biden’s visit was likely not coincidental. “Right out of the AMLO playbook,” the source said, referring to López Obrador. “Plays us like a fiddle.”
While the Mexican military took credit for the capture, another U.S. law enforcement source said Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) was involved. HSI’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In December 2021, the U.S. State Department offered a reward of up to $5 million for Ovidio’s arrest. Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Thursday that the U.S. is seeking Ovidio’s extradition but any movement on that would not be fast.
Ovidio has been linked to the rising production and trafficking of fentanyl in Mexico, but Hope, the security analyst, as well as one cartel operative, suggested it might be his botched arrest in 2019—rather than his criminal accomplishments—that raised his public profile.
“El Bebé had the bad luck of being arrested in a very public way in 2019, but his voice does not have much weight in the organization,” the Sinaloa Cartel member told VICE World News anonymously to avoid retaliation from his organization.
“He didn’t even want to enter the organization, but he was forced to by Iván, who is the one giving orders,” the cartel member said. “He was more like a posh kid from Culiacán. He wasn’t belligerent. He is a quiet kid, very easy going. But he knew the power his organization had and how protected he was by his brothers.”
Ovidio was popular in Culiacán, especially in the upper-class neighborhood of Tres Ríos, before his high-profile arrest—and release—on Oct. 17 2019, a debacle that became known locally as Black Thursday or the “Culiacanazo.” He was often seen eating at a local mall, driving his Mercedes Benz G-Wagon or even going to a nearby Starbucks to get coffee, according to a local Culiacán resident speaking with VICE News over the phone and who asked not to be named fearing retaliation.
He attended four years of primary school at one of Mexico City’s most exclusive Catholic institutions, according to news reports. But after his father escaped from prison in 2001—the first of two jailbreaks—Ovidio stopped going to school and returned to Sinaloa where he was raised by his grandmother, El Chapo’s mom, María Consuelo Loera.
Ovidio’s mother is El Chapo’s second wife, Griselda López Pérez, with whom the drug lord had three sons. He was the youngest of three sons produced by that marriage, along with Joaquín and a third brother, Édgar. In 2008, Édgar was gunned down along with two friends while in the parking lot of a shopping center in Culiacán. After his death, El Chapo reportedly bought every rose in Culiacán—50,000, according to the eponymous song 50 Mil Rosas by Lupillo Rivera—for his son’s funeral.
El Chapo later had twin daughters with his current wife Emma Coronel. It is unknown how many other children El Chapo has fathered. He also reportedly had four children with his first wife, including Iván and Jesús Alfredo.
For many years, Ovidio remained a largely unknown entity within the Guzmán family criminal empire. His name was first mentioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2012 when he was sanctioned along with his father and older brother Iván. Still, he largely flew under the radar until his 2019 arrest and release.
Iván on the other hand, has become the public face of the Chapitos. He was already well-known in law enforcement circles and by the public after allegedly being involved in the murder of a Canadian college exchange student in Guadalajara in 2004. He was later arrested on money laundering charges in 2005 but released a few years later due to lack of evidence.
In the years since, Iván and his younger brother Jesús Alfredo became notorious for their presence online. Twitter and Instagram accounts allegedly connected to the brothers routinely posted photos of guns, cash, and women. The brothers became synonymous with the so-called Narco Jr. phenomen—the children of wealthy drug traffickers who flaunt their ostentatious lives online.
Iván and Jesús Alfredo made international headlines when they were kidnapped in 2016 by the rival Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG for its Spanish acronym) during a dinner in the coastal city of Puerto Vallarta. The two brothers were later released after an alleged negotiation between the two cartels.
One of the most powerful and violent criminal organizations in the world, the Sinaloa Cartel has a footprint across Latin America and its tentacles in everything from drugs to migrant and wood trafficking.
In Sinaloa, the Chapitos share their power with other factions of the Sinaloa Cartel headed by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, one of the original founders of the organization, as well Aureliano Guzmán, known as El Guano, El Chapo’s brother.
Keegan Hamilton and Deborah Bonello contributed reporting.