Introduction: Revisiting the Interpretive Frenzy
One year ago, the city of Culiacán, capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, became the setting for violent confrontations between criminals and security forces. The events made national and international headlines, and provoked a frenzy of commentary and analysis.
To mark the anniversary, this collaboration between Noria Research Mexico and Central America Program, the Mexico Violence Resource Project, and Revista Espejo returns to and re-examines the events of October 17, and their interpretations. In the analyses that follow, researchers, journalists, and locals reflect on what happened in Culiacán, and why.
What Happened on October 17?
In the early afternoon of Thursday, October 17, security forces surrounded a large house in the Tres Ríos neighborhood of Culiacán. The forces detained Ovidio Guzmán, one of the sons of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzmán, the imprisoned leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. In immediate response, gunmen working for the cartel took to the streets, engaging in running battles with security forces in Tres Ríos and other areas.
The cartel reaction brought the city to a standstill. Armed men in trucks seized bridges and staked out major thoroughfares. They hijacked, emptied, and burned buses at intersections, sending columns of smoke into the air. People at restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations threw themselves to the ground or ran for cover as the gunmen and soldiers fired at each other.
Guzmán remained in detention, his location unknown, as violence worsened across the city. Inmates at Aguaruto Prison in Culiacán overpowered and disarmed guards. 55 inmates escaped. With strategic points held by gunmen, military reinforcements could not enter the city. A convoy of gunmen seized an apartment complex for military families, claiming hostages of their own. With pressure mounting, the security forces released Ovidio Guzmán. 13 people died during the violence.
At the time, there was little clarity about what was happening in Culiacán. Images and videos circulated online, and rumors followed. There were conflicting reports about who had been arrested and why, and about who had initiated the violence. Only in the days that followed would the sequence and explanation of events become clear.
At his morning press conference on October 18, President López Obrador stated he had backed the decision to release Gúzman (and would subsequently acknowledge having personally ordered the release). He famously stated that capturing a criminal was not worth sacrificing the lives of ordinary people. Further details emerged later. Guzmán was wanted for extradition by the DEA, and in the days prior to the capture, Mexican and U.S. security officials toured Sinaloa. The military operation that detained Guzmán was small and seemingly ill-prepared for the action.
Interpretations of October 17
The high drama of the day, which played out so intensely on social media, prompted a huge volume of analysis in the following days and weeks. Many security analysts and political commentators called it an exceptional event and predicted that serious consequences would follow. Reactions ranged from shock to outrage to incredulity, with one observer remarking 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 commentary.
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 was reinforced through the frequent use of military language describing October 17 as a battle or a siege. A Time magazine analysis likened the violence in Culiacán to a “mass insurrection” and to “a scene in Syria,” while others wrote that Culiacán looked and felt like a war zone.
The second interpretation warned that the actions of the government set a dangerous example, which would encourage criminal actors to turn to violence to gain further concessions from the state. Many commentators noted that the president ordering the release of a wanted criminal was unprecedented. Some argued that releasing Guzmán set a new precedent, and that the “cartels will surely take notice.” Others claimed 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 terms like capitulation or surrender. The news magazine Proceso displayed a photo of burning vehicles on its front cover, along with the phrase “You are in charge.” An analyst interviewed by the New York Times made a similar allegation: “To the people of Culiacán, the president is sending a very tough message: The cartel is in charge here.” Others wrote that, “López Obrador has chosen to give up the legitimate power of the state,” and that, “this is a victory for the Sinaloa Cartel, and a defeat for everyone.”
Not all commentators 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.
What Happened after October 17?
The events of October 17 are still frequently invoked in analyses of security policy under López Obrador. Rather than a precedent, commentators raise the event as the premier example of the futility of López Obrador’s “abrazos, no balazos” approach to organized crime. Instead of inaugurating a new paradigm of urban violence, the event has become a byword for the inability of López Obrador to curtail familiar patterns of violence.
Levels of violence continue to rise under López Obrador, as they did under the previous two presidents. 2020 is on track to be the most violent year on record for Mexico. The rate of increase in violence may have slowed, but the increase continues, with more than 40,000 murders projected for 2020. Seemingly undeterred by the Culiacán example (and contrary to López Obrador’s rhetoric about de-escalating security policy), security forces continue to arrest criminal leaders.
One year later, there is little sign of a Culiacán effect. There is no clear evidence of a new precedent or paradigm for violent action by criminal groups. Lethal and non-lethal forms of violence continue, but this does not look like some new type of war. Instead, it looks very much like the violence that preceded October 17, 2019. The release of Guzmán may have damaged the credibility of López Obrador’s approach to security policy, but the president and his party march on with little indication of a complete surrender of state authority.
In short, it looks like little has changed in the last year. The stories and analyses that follow can help us understand why.
Philip Johnson is a Ph.D. Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, Fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, and member of the NORIA research network.