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The head of Mexico’s army claimed Friday that the operation to capture one of El Chapo’s sons was planned without approval from the country’s top army officials and bungled by the local police forces who carried it out.
Luis Crescencio Sandoval said at a press conference that the security cabinet ordered the withdrawal of forces from the house in Culiacán where they found Ovidio Guzmán López after a gun battle with drug cartel members. “The negative effects of this precipitous and poorly planned action resulted in 19 street checkpoints [by the cartel] and 14 firefights with the Army and National Guard,” he said. Mexico’s president and public security secretary said that the operation was ended to protect the safety of the soldiers involved.
It’s still unclear exactly what happened Thursday afternoon and evening in Culiacán, the capital of Mexico’s northwestern Sinaloa state. But the bid to arrest 28-year-old Ovidio, the drug kingpin's son who's been indicted in the U.S., devolved into gun battles in the street and prompted a near citywide lockdown. Sources, including one U.S. law enforcement official, told VICE News that Mexican military captured Ovidio and then released him after an attack by the cartel.
Photos of Ovidio showed him in custody, but he was eventually set free. Unconfirmed reports suggest Iván Archivaldo Guzmán, El Chapo’s eldest son, may have also been captured and released. Ovidio and Iván lead a faction of the powerful Sinaloa cartel now that their father is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
José Luis Gonzalez Mesa, a lawyer in Mexico who represents the Guzmán family, told VICE News he will hold a press conference at 2 p.m. local time in Mexico City to publicly thank Mexican President Lopez Obrador for releasing Ovidio.
Gonzalez Mesa said he would hold the press conference at a press club in the city's historic center, adding insult to injury for the president, who's already embarrassed by the growing scandal over the botched capture operation. Asked whether El Chapo's family was aware of his plans for the press conference, Gonzalez Mesa replied, “But of course."
Mexican security secretary Alfonso Durazo said at a press conference 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 inside the house, but they ended up letting him go after being surrounded by gunmen who had “a greater force,” Durazo said.
“With the goal of safeguarding the well-being and tranquillity of Culiacán society, officials in the security cabinet decided to suspend the actions,” Durazo said.
Lopez Obrador said his Cabinet ultimately decided to call off the operation because of the threat the cartel posed to the general population. “They took decisions that I backed, that I endorse, because the situation turned very difficult because many citizens, many people, were at risk,” he said. “It was decided to protect people’s lives, and I was in agreement with that. It’s not about massacres. We can’t value the capture of one delinquent over the lives of the people.”
Cristóbal Castañeda, the public safety director for the state of Sinaloa, reportedly told a Mexican television station that people were wounded as a result of the shootout but didn’t confirm whether there were any deaths.
Keegan Hamilton contributed reporting.
Cover: Mexican police patrol in a street of Culiacan, state of Sinaloa, Mexico, on October 17, 2019, after heavily armed gunmen in four-by-four trucks fought an intense battle with Mexican security forces. (Photo by RASHIDE FRIAS / AFP) (Photo by RASHIDE FRIAS/AFP via Getty Images)