Mexican authorities have captured Ovidio Guzmán, a son of incarcerated drugs kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, prompting a wave of retaliatory attacks from cartel gunmen in the northern city of Culiacán.
After a night of violence, gunmen exchanged fire with security forces, blocking roads with burning vehicles and shooting at army helicopters and police aeroplanes bringing reinforcements to the city.
According to one resident, heavy fighting raged for hours after Guzmán – a key figure in the Sinaloa cartel since the arrest of his father – was arrested in the city early on Thursday.
“They caught him at about 4am, and since then the shooting hasn’t stopped. It’s been a real mess – they’re shooting up in the air trying to bring down the [police] helicopters. The whole town is a mess,” the resident said.
Cartel members also reportedly seized a Red Cross ambulance, took medical personnel from hospitals to attend their wounded comrades, threatened reporters and seized press vehicles.
All major roads into the city were blocked with burning vehicles, and gunmen attacked a military air base and Culiacán international airport, where a passenger jet was hit by a bullet as it was preparing to take off, according to the airline Aeromexico.
The Sinaloa state government said three members of the security forces had been killed in the clashes.
“We continue to work on controlling the situation,” said Cristobal Castaneda, Sinaloa’s public security chief.
The defense secretary, Luís Cresencio Sandoval, told reporters that Guzmán had been transferred to the Mexican capital after his capture by members of the army and national guard. He described the arrest as a “decisive blow against the Pacific cartel”, using another name for the powerful crime faction.
The exact circumstances of the arrest were unclear: Sandoval said it followed six months of surveillance, but also appeared to suggest there was an element of chance involved. “When the armed forces set up a roadblock to stop several vehicles with improvised armour, [cartel] gunmen opened fire. Security forces recognized Ovidio Guzmán, who they managed to detain,” he said.
Guzmán, 32, was previously detained briefly in Culiacán in 2019, but quickly released after a violent response from the gang in an episode which became a major embarrassment for the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
His recapture comes just days before a North American leaders’ summit in Mexico City next week, which Joe Biden will attend and at which security issues are on the agenda.
The United States had offered a $5m reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Guzmán.
A surge in overdose deaths in the United States, fueled by the synthetic opioid fentanyl, has led to increased pressure on Mexico to combat the organizations – such as the Sinaloa cartel – responsible for producing and shipping the drug.
For Tomás Guevara, a security expert at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, Guzmán’s arrest helps save face for Mexican law enforcement following the humiliation of having to let El Chapo’s son go in 2019.
“The detention of Ovidio is finally the culmination of something that was planned three years ago,” he said.
It might also herald a change in approach by the government, Guevara added, after criticism from many security experts that López Obrador had gone soft on the cartels, an accusation he denies.
The president argues the confrontational tactics of his predecessors were unsuccessful and only caused more bloodshed, saying he would instead pursue a strategy of “hugs not bullets”.
On Thursday morning, security forces were attempting to contain a violent reaction to the arrest in the Culiacán area by Guzmán’s associates.
Local government urged people to stay indoors and said schools and administrative offices were closed due to the violence. Unverified videos on social media appeared to show heavy gunfire, including from helicopters during the night. Street blockades had also been erected.
“We ask the citizens of Culiacán not to leave home due to the blockades that have occurred in different parts of the city,” Culiácan’s mayor, Juan de Dios Gámez, wrote on Twitter.
Joaquín Guzmán, 65, was convicted in New York in 2019 of trafficking billions of dollars of drugs to the United States and conspiring to murder enemies. He is serving a life sentence at Colorado’s Supermax, the most secure US federal prison.
Reuters contributed to this report