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Culiacan Revisited

One Year Later

Philip Johnson

One year ago, the city of Culiacán made national and international headlines. A military operation detained Ovidio Guzmán, the son of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzmán and an alleged leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. The detention led to displays of violence and intimidation by armed men working for the Sinaloa Cartel. In response, the military released Guzmán, a decision affirmed by the president, Andres Manuel López Obrador.


The events of October 17, 2019 provoked a huge volume of commentary and criticism. Many security analysts saw the decision to capture and release Guzmán as a capitulation by the state, which set a dangerous precedent. To mark the anniversary of what some called the “battle of Culiacán,” Noria returns to and re-examines the events of October 17. In the analyses that follow, experts from Noria’s Mexico and Central America Program look at what happened in Culiacán, what experts said about these events, and why so many expert warnings and expectations have not come to pass.


What Happened on October 17?


On the afternoon of Thursday, October 17, rumors spread around Culiacán that one of the sons of Chapo Guzmán had been detained. Soon afterwards, images and videos began circulating, showing armed men patrolling the streets on foot or in vehicles. In some videos, people hide or flee as armed men open fire, although it is not clear who the target is. Helicopters buzzed over the city. Hijacked buses were torched to block streets, sending columns of thick smoke into the air and disrupting air traffic.


Reports emerged that Ovidio Guzmán had been detained during a military operation, and that the violence in the streets was a response to his detention. The government initially claimed that Guzmán was detained when he attacked a routine security patrol, but reporters soon established that a military operation had targeted Guzmán’s house. Late in the evening, various sources confirmed that Guzmán had been released, and that the streets were empty but calm.


At his morning press conference on October 18, president López Obrador asserted that Guzmán was released to prevent further violence. López Obrador stated that his security cabinet made the decision, with his full support. He underscored that his security policy would not follow the militarized approach of his predecessors, and famously stated that capturing a criminal was not worth sacrificing the lives of ordinary people. 


In the days that followed, further details of the capture and release of Ovidio Guzmán circulated. Guzmán was wanted for extradition by the DEA, and in the days prior to the capture, Mexican and U.S. security officials and international journalists had toured Sinaloa. The military operation that detained Guzmán was small and seemingly ill-prepared for the action, and appears to have been approved by local rather than national leadership. Most recently, López Obrador confirmed that he made the decision - rather than merely supported the decision - to release Guzmán.


Interpretations of October 17 


Many security analysts and political commentators called October 17 an exceptional event, and predicted that serious consequences would follow from the capture and release of Guzmán. For example, Alejandro Hope stated that “No one could imagine such a bad Netflix show… This combination of actually capturing the guy and then releasing him? That’s new.” Not all agreed, however, on exactly why October 17 was exceptional, or on what the consequences would be. Three interpretations recurred across the huge volume of commentary on the events.


The first interpretation compared the events of October 17 to war or civil conflict, and warned that this could escalate into a broader confrontation between organized crime and the state. This interpretation appears frequently in the military language used to describe October 17 as a battle or a siege. Writing for Time magazine, Ioan Grillo likened the violence in Culiacán to “a scene in Syria.” For the Crisis Group, Falko Ernst wrote that Culiacán looked and felt like a war zone.


The second interpretation warned that the actions of the state set a dangerous precedent, which would encourage criminal actors to turn to violence to gain concessions from the state. Many commentators noted that the president ordering the release of a wanted criminal was unprecedented. Some, such as León Krauze for the Washington Post, argued that releasing Guzmán set a new precedent, and that the “cartels will surely take notice.” Similarly, Bruce Bagley told the Wall Street Journal that Culiacán provided a template for other criminal groups to follow: “If it can happen in Sinaloa, it can happen in half a dozen other places, and now the cartels have a formula.”


The third interpretation viewed the release of Guzmán as a capitulation of the state’s authority, which could demoralize the public and weaken the fight against organized crime. Reporting and analysis often used words like capitulation or surrender. Krauze claimed that, “López Obrador has chosen to give up the legitimate power of the state.” The news magazine Proceso displayed a photo of burning vehicles on its front cover, along with the phrase “You are in charge” (“ustedes mandan”). To the New York Times, Raúl Benítez Manaut made a similar point: “To the people of Culiacán, the president is sending a very tough message: The cartel is in charge here.”


Not all commentators and analysts were critical of the release of Guzmán - although virtually no one supported the ill-prepared effort to capture him. Some applauded the decision to value civilian and military lives over another captured crime figure. Edgardo Buscaglia stated that the release was the right move if the lives of soldiers were at risk.

This project is a joint effort between the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, the Noria Mexico-Central America program, and Revista Espejo.

The Spanish version can be found here.