In the afternoon of Thursday October 17, Mexican security forces captured a key figure in one of the world’s largest criminal organisations, Ovidio Guzmán, son of the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
A matter of hours later, when those same security forces became outnumbered and outgunned by the cartel’s own security forces, Guzmán was released. Details of the events are slowing being wrenched out of the Mexican government as it scrambles to decide on its official version (one major Mexican newspaper reported that the government has already released six different versions of events).
However, from what is known, the Sinaloa Cartel unleashed an hours long, modern day siege on the state capital, Culiacán, in order to free Guzmán and ensure he does not end up being extradited to the US like his father, who is currently serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison.
In scenes reminiscent of an urban war zone, much of the day’s events were captured by local residents showing trucks burning in the streets, major roads blocked, and cartel members speeding around the city in armoured pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns.
During the bloody afternoon, a reported 14 people died, including one civilian. To make matters worse, at least 49 prisoners escaped from a local prison, many remain uncaptured.
It continues a particularly bloody month of October for Mexico, in which a cartel ambush in Michoacán left 13 police dead, only to be followed the next day by a gunfight in Guerrero between security forces and an armed group that left 14 civilians and a soldier dead.
Since the event, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has received a barrage of criticism citing the incident as a classic example of the weakness of the Mexican state and its inherent characteristics of corruption and impunity.
The day after in his morning press conference, the President, known commonly as AMLO, said the decision was made “because the situation turned very bad and lots of citizens were at risk.” He further justified the decision of his senior military leaders by stating, “you cannot value the life of a criminal more than the lives of the people.”
The President has already been under significant pressure since taking office in December to define a more coherent security strategy that goes beyond his simple and oft-repeated rhetoric of “hugs not bullets”. The fact that this operation was led by the National Guard, a newly created security force for which he himself fought extremely hard, puts him in a vulnerable position.
In a sign of the mistrust and disorganisation that exists within the state security apparatus, the Sinaloa Minister for Public Security stated that local authorities had “no knowledge” of the operation.
There has been little in the way of praise or even support for AMLO on the matter. This is a natural consequence of the sheer anger of Mexican citizens (and even non-Mexican citizens) at the inability of the government to seriously solve the issue of cartel violence.
When a key member of one of the world’s largest criminal organisations is arrested and then released the same day because the government’s senior military leadership fear the consequences of holding him, anger is justified.
The words of a Mexico City taxi driver, Antonio Gómez, the day after the events summed up the general sentiment well: “it’s a tontería (bullshit) that narcos can be more powerful than the government! ¿Qué pasa?”
However, despite the justified anger that so many feel, this event should be viewed through a more nuanced and contextualised lens.
López Obrador has criticised his predecessors’ strategy for “turning Mexico into a cemetery.” The strategy to which he refers began in 2006 when President Felipe Calderón launched the drug war with a promise to crack down on cartels. Since then, Mexico has taken a militaristic approach deciding to match violence with more violence. As a result, over a quarter of a million Mexicans have been murdered.
When it became clear that this strategy was only resulting in innocent civilians getting caught in the crossfire, tactics were changed and the capture of cartel leaders became the priority. Bringing in big national and international headlines, the capture of cartel leaders helped make the Mexican state look like it was in control of the situation.
Given that security always features as a top priority for Mexicans, presidents sought political gain in this new strategy whilst disregarding the actual reasons why young Mexican men join cartels in the first place, mainly poverty and lack of opportunity.
A big arrest such as El Chapo is great for a President’s poll numbers as it makes it look like he is winning the drug war. However, the unfortunate reality is that Mexican cartels are savvy and wise and as a response to this strategy have decided to fragment into smaller groups so that arresting their leaders is more difficult and cannot be used as presidential PR victories.
Despite the fact that it is called a “drug war,” and despite the right-wing media’s attempts to portray the country as a Syria-like chaos on the precipice of disintegration, Mexico is not actually at war. This characterisation of the problem as a “war” has been indispensable in the rhetorical justification for increased militarisation and raging levels of violence and civilian casualties, sadly, often at the hands of the state itself.
It is exactly for this reason that the decision to let Guzmán go free represents a serious change in Mexican policy towards the cartels. The strategy of previous presidents has led to untold numbers of innocent Mexicans becoming collateral damage.
On Thursday, for the first time in well over a decade, a Mexican president decided to put the lives of his own citizens above the capture of one drug kingpin. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It represents a crucial line in the sand that AMLO has drawn in the bloody battle between the Mexican government and some of the world’s most powerful criminal organisations.
The criticism of this decision that suggests AMLO’s display of “weakness” will end up costing more lives is justified. It is true that other cartels will learn from this decision and undoubtedly exploit it.
All the Sinaloa Cartel had to do to ensure the release of one of their leaders was spill enough blood and cause enough chaos for a matter of hours. This is a dangerous message to send to the people controlling some of the world’s largest drug trafficking empires. Even more so after the Mexican government sent a strong message to cartel leaders in 2017 that it was serious about extradition when it sent El Chapo, the most powerful of them all, north of the border.
However, in the midst of such criticism and justified outrage, the human cost should not be forgotten. AMLO swept into office less than a year ago in a landslide victory with a promise that he would end this bloody chapter in Mexican history.
Sadly, 2019 is on track to surpass 2018 as Mexico’s bloodiest year, which opened over 33,000 murder investigations. Institutional violence has plagued Mexico for a long time and since the drug war began in 2006 the state has had a considerable share of the bloodshed on its own hands.
As this violence continues to rage in Mexico, and as the international media continues to ignore it until another major event such as this one happens, what cannot be ignored is the lives that this decision saved. Whilst a final number on exactly how many died in the events that broke out in Culiacán last Thursday has not been released, it is beyond doubt that if AMLO decided to hold Guzmán in custody, many more would have died – “more than 200” according to the country’s Foreign Minister.
This is a solemn yet important moment for all those who have for years dreamt of a Mexican state that places greater value on human life. The careless disregard and cavalier attitude towards the protection of citizens taken by previous presidents has so far failed to rear its ugly head in this president. That is a good thing.
One must hope that President López Obrador’s characteristic stubbornness will hold strong and not allow him to bow down to the pressure of those who want to see the drug war ramped up. There are millions in Mexico who have lost loved ones to this largely US-funded war machine only to see more of their fellow citizens end up dead in the street.
These people would have given anything to have a President who showed the restraint that López Obrador did. Innocent Mexicans should not have to suffer at the hands of cartels nor state security forces because of the government’s inability to deal with serious structural problems such as corruption, security and poverty. If not capturing one drug lord is a consequence of saving innocent lives, then so be it.