El Chapo’s son captured and released after failed raid


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Sinaloa capital, Culiacan, under martial law amidst the chaos

On October 17th, Mexican armed forces and members of the National Guard entered Culiacan, the capital city of the state of Sinaloa, with a mission to find and capture drug lord Ovidio Guzman, the son of the infamous Joaquin Guzman, better known as El Chapo. Mexican authorities were quickly met with intense gunfire coming from a small house. After repelling the attack, the army found Ovidio in the house and promptly arrested him. The area was soon swarmed by heavily armed cartel members and the force of 40 had to retreat with Ovidio with them. The next few days were met with intense gunfights and violence as the entire city was eventually held hostage by the cartel. On October 20th, authorities released Ovidio. With the situation escalating so quickly, many are confused about what happened. Why was the army in Culiacan? Why was the cartel so strong? Why was Ovidio released?


History of Violence

Since the 1920s, the drug trade has been a concern for Mexico and the US. What started out as small drug dealing eventually would become an industry known for its intense violence and political ramifications. By the 1980s the drug trade greatly benefited Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar, as he became the King of Cocaine and practically held control over the entire country. The main buyers of illegal drugs were the US, so many moved operations in nearby Mexico. While Mexican cartels began to see success in the 80s, it exploded when the Escobar crime ring came down, leaving a massive power vacuum for other gangs to fill. Many went from working with Escobar, to doing it on their own. The Industrial Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had been in power since 1929, had been dominated and bought out by cartels, leading to the party voted in through constantly rigged elections. In 2000, PRI lost to the National Action Party (PAN), but PAN politicians were soon killed or bought out by cartels.


Mexico, the US, and the Cartels

Throughout the years, cartels have been able to position their way into power with bribery and fear. Many cartels bribe politicians and police or threaten them with torture or death. Given the massive profits cartels make, they easily obtain military grade weapons and can recruit mercenaries and civilians. Their entire power is based on money and fear. Since the US is the  main buyer of these drugs, the US government has invested billions of dollars to help Mexico crackdown on these gangs. The brute force direction has only spurred violence, with attacks against police families and politicians common. In 2006 Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, declared war on drug cartels taking a brutal, forceful militaristic approach to the issue. The following war would see the murder rate in Mexico increased dramatically, mass shootings, kidnappings, mass executions, and even bombings in Mexico. The succeeding president, Pena Nieto, attempted to roll back the forceful approach but ended up falling into the same pit of violence. With help from the US, 25 of the 30 top drug lords in Mexico were either captured or killed, but this seemed to only make more violence, with more people taking their place. Current Mexican President, Lopez Obrador, has taken a stance of peaceful intervention and decriminalization of some drugs in Mexico. The murder rate has fallen, but critics claim that this only shows weakness, Obrador does not want to fall into the same situation as his predecessors.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected in 2018 with a political campaign on combating cartels without violence. /(Cortesia)

The Cartels

The various cartels in Mexico all compete for territory, resources, and political power. Each group controls different regions in Mexico, violent confrontations are common often leading to civilians caught in the middle. The following cartels are the most prominent:


The Sinaloa cartel is the oldest and most influential cartel as of now, led previously by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. This cartel is most powerful in Mexico’s pacific coast.


The Juarez cartel is the bitter rival of the Sinaloa cartel, and operates in the North Center state of Chihuahua, and in New Mexico and Texas.


The Gulf cartel operates in the North East of Mexico in Tamaulipas, but their power has greatly diminished over the years. 


Los Zetas cartel comprises of ex-military and police forces, that used to work for the Gulf cartel before splintering off. Los Zetas are known for their advanced technology compared to other cartels and their combative skills. They are also known as the most violent cartel, often stopping hoards of civilians on buses or in cities, making them fight with machetes, and raping the women after torturing the men. They control Eastern, Center, and Southern Mexico, but have reportedly lost power over the years. 


Jalisco cartel split from the Sinaloa cartel and is known for its willingness to engage in violence against anyone.


El Chapo and his legacy

El Chapo was the leader of the Sinaloa cartel and was known for his efficiency in trafficking drugs and his ruthlessness to opposition. He was found and captured in 2016 and was sent to prison in the US where he is now in maximum security for a life sentence 30 plus years. El Chapo left a legacy of violence, but also of admiration among cartels and gangs, especially in Sinaloa. In Mexico, many resent the government, as the government has been corrupt and inefficient. The only way to get around or to survive in cartel controlled areas is to work with them, bolstering their strength. This creates a culture of suspicion and violence.

After Chapo’s arrest, it is believed that Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzman, and a man who worked closely with Chapo, Ismael Zambada, are the ones who run the Sinaloa cartel.

The Culiacan raid

With a warrant for arrest for Ovidio, Mexican authorities entered Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa and the stronghold for the Sinaloa cartel. Mexican military forces captured Ovidio and retreated after being outgunned and outnumbered by cartel forces. Over the next few days, firefights broke out between government forces and the cartel. During the carnage, the cartel blocked the exits of the city with burning buses and trucks and held much of the population hostage. Families of police and soldiers were targeted and killed. The streets of Culiacan resembled a war zone as children fled the scene, while cartel members attached heavy machine guns to trucks and patrolled the area. Bodies littered the street as buildings were set aflame by cartel members. The cartel issued a statement demanding the release of Ovidio or the cartel would begin mass executions of civilians in the city. The drug lord was released in fear of these executions. Many see this as a sign of the government’s inability to combat the cartels. President Obrador defended the decision by stating that the massive amounts of deaths in the city would not be worth capturing one guy. As of now, Culiacan is under military control, with military police patrolling the area daily.

Heavily armed Sinaloa cartel forces blocked off the exits with car bombs and burning trucks while holding many citizens hostage./(Photo: Agencia Reforma)


While President Obrador received backlash from the release of Ovidio, the US received criticism as well due to the discovery that many of the weapons used by the cartel were military grade, including light machine guns, grenades, rocket launchers, and 50 Caliber sniper rifles. 70% of all cartel weapons in Mexico originate from arms dealers in the US. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are aware of this and as of now do not have a solution to the problem. Many demand something be done about this to alleviate violence in Mexico, and drug trafficking in America. 


What this means for Mexico and the US

The siege of Culiacan has shown that the government of Mexico cannot reliably control the crime in the country, even with the help of the US. There is likely to be future conflicts as Sinaloa cartel members arm and regroup. Many are hoping for Obrador to reform or bring some change to combat the cartels safely, but many are doubtful. As for the US, with the Opioid epidemic, the US is still the main buyer of illegal drugs in the US as the demand is huge. This has lead to many to criticize the US in how it treats drug users and how we deal with the Opioid epidemic in general.

Culiacan exits blocked by armed gang members, flaming trucks, and car bombs./(EPA Shutterstock)