MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador may have just walked backwards into the biggest crisis of his presidency. The leftist populist took responsibility on Friday for the government’s decision to release the son of the notorious drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán after a military operation went off the rails Thursday, briefly turning the city of Culiacán into a war zone.
“You can’t fight fire with fire,” López Obrador said at his Friday morning press conference. “That’s the difference between our strategy versus what previous administrations have done. We don’t want deaths, we don’t want war. This is hard for many people to understand, but the strategy that was used by previous administrations turned the country into a cemetery, and we don’t want that anymore.”
That may be the administration’s current argument, but it will do little to undo the public relations nightmare López Obrador now finds himself in, after the shocking images from Culiacán reverberated around social media in real time, stoking fear and confusion across the country.
The deadly shoot-out in Culiacán bookends an especially deadly week in Mexico’s drug war. On Monday, an ambush in western Mexico ended in the massacre of 13 officers by the Jalisco New Generation cartel. In a separate incident Wednesday, a gunfight between the military and suspected organized crime in the state of Guerrero left 15 people dead.
These incidents are red meat to López Obrador’s critics who argue the president’s security strategy is faltering and that cartels are feeling emboldened. Security experts also said López Obrador’s decision to release Ovidio Guzmán marked a striking breakdown in his security strategy that could strain relations with the U.S., which reportedly was seeking Guzman's extradition.
“This is a clusterfuck,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City. “There have been many mistakes in operations trying to capture kingpins. Most of them ended up with the escape of the kingpin. What had never happened — until now — was they actually capture the kingpin and then release him.”
The shoot-out in Culiacán has dominated Mexican media. Newspapers around the country splashed headlines that underscored the potential political fallout for López Obrador, who until now has enjoyed approval ratings of around 70 percent. Among the headlines: “Chapito falls, unleashes terror, and then is released.” “Terror in Culiacán after ephemeral capture of El Chapo’s son.” “Chapo’s son is released, Culiacán lives through hours of terror.”
The high drama verged into the surreal by Friday afternoon, when lawyers for Guzman’s family held a press conference to thank López Obrador for releasing Ovidio Guzmán.
Lopez Obrador is “a good man, a Christian” for releasing the younger Guzmán, said José Luis González Meza, a lawyer for the Guzmán family, at a press conference on Friday. A second lawyer for the family added that there had been no negotiation over his release.
“The signal here is that the Mexican government is not going to put people behind bars at the cost of losing civilian lives”
Since taking office, López Obrador has stated his disdain for the drug war that dominated Mexico for the last 13 years. “Abrazos, no balazos” — translated as “hugs, not gunfire” — was one of his campaign slogans. Instead, he has emphasized addressing the root causes of violence, including extreme poverty. He has increased the minimum wage and emphasized rooting out corruption, strategies he has insisted will decrease violence in the long run. He also proposed legislation that would grant amnesty to low-level drug offenders.
But his approach doesn’t appear to be working — at least not yet. Homicides are on track to surpass last year’s 30,000 homicides, the most recorded in two decades of statistics. This week underscored the country’s growing security problems.
The shoot-outs in Culiacán were a gut-punch to an already delicate situation, said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego who studies cartel violence in Mexico.
“The signal here is that the Mexican government is not going to put people behind bars at the cost of losing civilian lives. And that may be very noble but it’s problematic in that it suggests the government is amenable to extortion in the form of violence,” said Shirk. “What happens with the next person it wants to catch? The cartels could say we are going to start killing civilians every day until you release our guy.”
What exactly happened on Thursday remains unclear. At first Mexican security secretary Alfonso Durazo released a video saying that 30 soldiers from the army and National Guard were patrolling Culiacán when someone shot at them from inside a house. The soldiers found Ovidio Guzmán inside the house, but they ended up letting him go after being surrounded by gunmen with more force, Durazo said. The Wall Street Journal reported that Ovidio Guzmán was released after top Mexican officials learned that at least six soldiers were being held by gunmen Thursday afternoon.
Luis Cresencio Sandoval, the head of Mexico’s army, offered a different version of events Friday, telling reporters that it was a planned operation. He said local police were executing an arrest warrant with “extradition purposes.” He said the operation was planned without approval from the country’s top officials and bungled by the local police forces who carried it out. He said eight people died in gun fights across the city, including five cartel members, a civilian, and one member of the National Guard.
“It’s not only that you failed but that everyone watched.”
But Sandoval struck a defensive tone and criticized reporters for focusing on the decision to release Ovidio Guzmán. “We have to develop operations. And sometimes, errors are made. On many occasions, such errors have been paid for with the lives of our personnel. And you guys don’t complain about what happened. Our personnel put our lives at risk for you, for all citizens.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declined to comment, and forwarded queries to the Mexican government. But López Obrador confirmed at his press conference that the operation was carried out to fulfill the extradition request.
Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst at Lantia Consultores in Mexico City, said the obfuscation over what happened suggests the Mexican government is trying to find a way out to save face. “These kinds of contradictions happen when you don’t want to say something clear for fear of appearing ridiculous,” he said. “This defeat is going to be very costly for López Obrador and will probably result in the resignation of his security secretary.”
It’s not so unusual for operations like this to go wrong, said Jaime López-Aranda, a security analyst in Mexico City. “It’s just that it had never gone wrong in real-time being broadcast over Twitter and WhatsApp and everything else,” he said. “It’s not only that you failed but that everyone watched.”
Cover: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador arrives in Oaxaca as part of his tour. Photo: EL UNIVERSAL / EELG Agency (GDA via AP Images)