At four o’clock in the afternoon on October 17, 2019, the Mexican city of Culiacán, capital of the northeastern state of Sinaloa, erupted in gunfire. Minutes before, in the exclusive Tres Ríos district, members of the army and National Guard had arrested Ovidio Guzmán López, son of the jailed former head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín Guzmán (“El Chapo”), and one of the organization’s new generation of leaders.
The response was immediate: taking to the streets, cartel members fired rounds of automatic weapons from trucks and blocked intersections with burning vehicles, all in a bid to sow chaos. Surrounding the armed forces involved in the raid, they cut off access on the three bridges leading out of the area.
Over the radio frequencies used by the police and the army, the cartel proceeded to announce that, if Guzmán was not freed, it would take revenge against both the family members of those participating and the general public. Following hasty deliberations, the federal security cabinet decided to go ahead and release Guzmán, a decision approved by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO).
The response from the Mexican right was equally apoplectic and hypocritical. With no apparent irony, Marko Cortés, leader of the National Action Party (PAN), came to the remarkable conclusion that Mexico is a “failed state” that is “experiencing one of its worst episodes in the combat against delinquency.” While stating his party’s intention to sue AMLO for freeing Guzmán, Cortés stated that “the Mexican State was subdued, brought to its knees, humiliated by organized crime.”
Not to be outdone, elements of the military also got in on the game: in a case of rank insubordination, General Carlos Demetrio Gaytán Ochoa declared: “We feel insulted as Mexicans and offended as soldiers.” Going on to question the “strategic decisions” of the president, Gaytán Ochoa stated: “We are currently living in a politically polarized society because the dominant ideology . . . is based on currents from the so-called left, which accumulated a large amount of resentment over the years.”
Conveniently omitted from such vociferations were several key points. First, that President Felipe Calderón was the one who launched his homicidal, so-called war on drugs in the first place, which saw over 121,000 killed in his administration alone. Second, that Calderón himself oversaw the freeing of Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes (“El Mencho”), leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, under similar siege circumstances in 2012. And third, according to investigative journalist Anabel Hernández, Calderón’s government was in fact an active supporter of the Sinaloa Cartel by means of his all-powerful federal police force.
But history hardly matters when the goal is to make AMLO look weak in the fight against organized crime, the captain of a nation that is slipping out of his control.
None of this is to imply that what happened in Culiacán is above criticism. In the government’s own analysis, provided by secretary of defense Luis Cresencio Sandoval González the following day, the operation was conducted “precipitously, with deficient planning and a failure to provide for the consequences of the intervention.” In light of the fact that the Sinaloa Cartel is the third most powerful criminal organization in the world, with a presence in eighty-one countries, sending such a small squadron down the streets of its head city to arrest a capo’s son was naive in the extreme. As if to underscore the point, one of the state police officers that supported the operation was gunned down in a hail of over 150 bullets outside of a shopping center on November 4.
Equally problematic was the government’s handling of communications. In a video released hours after the operation, secretary of public safety Alfonso Durazo stated that a “routine patrol” was fired upon from a house that turned out to have Ovidio Guzmán inside, an account that was subsequently refuted by footage showing the military caravan approaching its target area deliberately.
In stark contrast with previous administrations, however (Durazo, for his part, promptly rectified the mistake the following day), was AMLO’s openness, transparency, willingness to admit errors, and frank admission that saving innocent lives — or, to borrow a favorite term from the Calderón era, “collateral damage” — was more important than having yet one more head to perp before the cameras.
As analyst Edgardo Buscaglia pointed out in an interview with Carmen Aristegui, the problem in Sinaloa is not one of simple criminal delinquency, but about the abandonment by the state of its core functions:
This organization is made up of politicians, it’s made up of businesspeople, it’s made up of trade unionists, it’s made up of civil-society front groups. It’s an organization that, when you arrive at the airport in Culiacán, the taxis that come by belong to the Sinaloa Cartel in many cases. So we are talking about a state within a state that provides employment, that provides quasi-social goods, delivers water, establishes health centers.
Buscaglia concludes: “In this type of case [such as Culiacán], mechanisms of disinformation are generated in order to generate political instability.” And there is the rub: at a time of remarkable political upheaval in Latin America, the Mexican right cynically attempted to use a crisis of its own making in an attempt to destabilize AMLO, using the citizenry as hostages to its ploys.
The Overlord Is Not Pleased
The missing piece of the puzzle in all of this is the role of the United States as instigator, cheerleader, and puppeteer of Mexico’s drug war. In an appearance before Congress on October 31, Alfonso Durazo admitted that there is no outstanding arrest warrant against Ovidio Guzmán in Mexico; what was being executed in Culiacán was a detention order with the sole purpose of extraditing him to the United States. The indictment dates to February of this year, when the Justice Department charged Ovidio and his brother Joaquín with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana for importation.
In other words, above and beyond any operational and communications errors, AMLO’s security team — with or without the president’s foreknowledge — was carrying out the raid to satisfy the demands of the US justice system, not its own.
Not that the overlord was particularly thankful. “The events of last week were very concerning to us,” said Richard Glenn, deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, in an appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee the week after the operation. Glenn went on to lecture Mexico about the need for a “comprehensive strategy” to fight organized crime requiring political commitment from the highest level of the federal government.
The jargon-coated threat received a testy response from AMLO, who, in his morning press conference the next day, suggested that the country that allows weapons to flow unchecked into Mexico is hardly in a position to opine about its measures to stem violence.
Behind Glenn’s glib comments to Congress are a series of shadowy US movements in Sinaloa. On September 16, the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Uttam Dhillon traveled to the state for a private meeting with Governor Quirino Ordaz, one that also included the presence of military officials from the army, marines, and National Guard.
“Gone are the days when knowing that the DEA was present in Sinaloa was worthy of condemnation,” wrote Ríodoce magazine’s Ismael Bojórquez of the meeting. “[Felipe] Calderón opened the door wide; now DEA agents even take the liberty of writing books that detail operations to catch capos, such as Andrew Hogan . . . who wrote a book revealing the details of the second capture of El Chapo Guzmán in Mazatlán.”
Meanwhile, a November 1 Reuters article contended that US efforts to curb the opioid fentanyl were beyond the operation in Culiacán, alluding without further detail to a “covert mission” carried out by the DEA in Sinaloa in September.
A darker hypothesis thus begins to emerge. Could the destabilization efforts against AMLO not be limited to making hay of a failed raid? Is there more to US machinations than its insistence on AMLO following its blood-soaked, capo-driven, B-movie-grade “strategy”? In short, could Culiacán have been a setup?
All it would have taken was one too-good-to-pass-up tip about the location of Ovidio Guzmán. The Sinaloa Cartel did not rise up when El Chapo himself was (re)captured; why, then, now? In this scenario, the president’s pulling back from the brink would appear all the more providential, in more ways than one.
Following His Own Script
Culiacán highlights the urgency with which, after nearly a year in office, AMLO needs to pacify Mexico — not by following someone else’s script, but his own. This means forsaking the route of violence in favor of an aggressive targeting of the financial structures that maintain organized crime: freezing accounts (his government has already frozen some two thousand worth $260 million USD), seizing assets, and breaking down the nexuses that allow cartels to launder money abroad.
The MORENA majority in Congress is also taking the necessary first steps toward the legalization of drugs: its proposed cannabis control bill would both legalize marijuana and create a federal agency for its purchase, sale, and distribution.
Legalization and the targeting of cartel finances must go hand in hand with the slow but necessary work of reestablishing the presence of a social state that decades of savage capitalism have allowed to wither: education, health care, housing, arts and culture, dignified alternatives to cartel employment, and an urgent redistribution of wealth to address the nation’s gross and glaring wealth inequality. For as long as the violence continues, AMLO’s opponents will continue to take advantage of it to destabilize his government, putting at risk everything else he is hoping to achieve.