Mexican president says he ordered release of El Chapo's son

Ovidio Guzmán was briefly captured in October only to be let go hours later as security was overwhelmed by cartel forces

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on Friday said he personally ordered the release of one of the sons of notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, after his brief detention during a military operation.

Scenes of mayhem during the operation caused López Obrador’s government considerable embarrassment in October as security forces briefly captured Ovidio Guzmán only to let him go hours later as the security forces were overwhelmed by cartel forces.

Probably tipped off ahead of the operation, hundreds of heavily armed gunmen from the Sinaloa cartel poured into Culiacán, a city of a million people. An hours-long siege ensued, as the cartel gunmen erected flaming roadblocks and unloaded bursts of gunfire in the streets in a coordinated effort to free the younger Guzmán.

But the aborted arrest – and the chaos that it unleashed – prompted accusations that the government had simply folded in the face of cartel firepower, and cast further doubt on the president’s efforts to overhaul Mexico’s security strategy.

Calderón sends in the army

Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.

Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

Kingpin strategy

Simultaneously Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.

That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.

Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.

But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.

"Hugs not bullets"

The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.

“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.

Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong "National Guard". But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.

Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.

López Obrador had previously said his security cabinet made the call to release Ovidio, a decision he said he endorsed to protect terrorized residents from the crossfire between cartel henchmen and security forces.

Friday was the first time the president openly acknowledged having given the order himself.

“So as not to put the population at risk … I ordered that this operation be stopped and that this alleged criminal be released,” López Obrador said at a news conference.

López Obrador added that a couple days later Donald Trump offered to help crack down on the cartel, but Mexico did not accept it.

The US continues to seek Ovidio’s extradition.

Despite López Obrador’s promises to tame violence with policies focused on relieving rampant poverty and youth unemployment, homicides in Mexico have climbed to record levels during the first four months of this year.

In 2019, the president’s first full year in office, homicides hit an all-time high.

Reuters contributed reporting

Guardian staff and agencies in Mexico City

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Jobs, roads and schools: Mexico's new president makes a play for El Chapo's homeland
Farmers in the impoverished region long ignored by the state have for decades scratched out a living from marijuana plantations and opium crops

David Agren in Badiraguato

12, Mar, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Mexican president ignores coronavirus restrictions to greet El Chapo's mother
Andrés Manuel López Obrador provokes perplexity and scorn with visit to drug lord’s home town in Sinaloa

Tom Phillips, Latin America correspondent

30, Mar, 2020 @2:21 PM

Article image
'We do not want war': Mexico president defends release of El Chapo’s son
Andrés Manuel López Obrador said security forces saved lives by releasing jailed kingpin’s son after his brief capture in Culiacán

Jo Tuckman in Mexico City

18, Oct, 2019 @4:30 PM

Article image
Mexico's president under pressure over 'hugs not bullets' cartel policy
Amlo strategy of alleviating poverty and a ban on corruption questioned amid recent cartel violence

Jo Tuckman in Mexico City

05, Nov, 2019 @12:27 PM

Article image
Mexico's Amlo says El Chapo 'had the same power' as past presidents
López Obrador took a blow at his predecessors while claiming Mexico’s era of corruption is ‘gone to the garbage dump of history’

Staff and agencies in Mexico City

01, Jan, 2020 @7:12 PM

Article image
El Chapo's daughter is married at majestic Mexican cathedral
Ostentatious wedding to groom with underworld links is seen as reminder of bride’s family’s power

David Agren in Mexico City

02, Feb, 2020 @6:40 PM

Article image
Cowed and outgunned: why Mexico’s police 'don't stand a chance' against drug cartels
The 14 October massacre that left 13 state police dead was just one extreme episode of violence in a recent litany of horrors from Mexico’s drug wars

Jo Tuckman in El Aguaje

05, Nov, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
El Chapo's escape humiliates Mexican president: 'The state looks putrefied'
Behind bars, Joaquín Guzmán was a shining symbol of the government’s efforts to crack down on drug-war violence. His flight puts endemic corruption on show

Jo Tuckman in Mexico City

13, Jul, 2015 @7:30 PM

Article image
El Chapo: Mexican police capture then release drug boss's son after battle with cartel
Security minister says decision not to detain Ovidio Guzmán López was made to protect citizens, after heavy gunfire

Jo Tuckman in Mexico City

18, Oct, 2019 @2:53 AM

Article image
Mexican president bemoans ‘rude’ US fentanyl pressure in plea to Xi Jinping
Andrés Manuel López Obrador asks China to curb exports of opioid after lengthy denunciation of similar calls from US

Staff and agencies in Mexico City

04, Apr, 2023 @8:46 PM