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How did Culiacan Change after October 17? The Open Wound

Josué David Piña and Marcos Vizcarra

The walls have now been patched up. There is nothing left on the streets but dust; customers are ready to go back into restaurants, the City Club wholesale store is full, and the news reporters are now talking about any other topic, anything other than the idea that the threat, the pain, and the anguish are still there, latent.

The reporters for the world’s main newspapers and television programs came here in search of the exclusive story: Why was Ovidio Guzmán López released, the son of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, “El Chapo,” the most famous drug trafficker of Mexico, a member of the Sinaloa Cartel?

Most of them arrived late. By October 19, two days after the most impactful criminal event in the history of Sinaloa, attention was no longer focused on it.

-Why does nobody want to talk about this? - This was the question asked by Íñigo Herráiz, a Spanish Television journalist sent to document the history of the event being referred to as the “Culiacanzo” by national security analysts on television and radio programs based outside of Sinaloa.

Ten different officials posed for his cameras, speaking to him about working to prevent a similar attack, prepared to take action if necessary.

While this occurred, the Governor of Sinaloa, Quirino Ordaz Coppel, met with business people, politicians, deans and presidents of universities, civil society organizations, and the owners of media outlets, with one sole goal: to try to change the conversation about Sinaloa.

And he succeeded.

“After that day, we said, ‘Oh, damn, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” states activist Dante Aguilera, “and I do feel like it lasted fifteen days, a month, maybe a little more. Even people who follow this type of movement, I feel like they felt attacked. But we quickly forgot about it, unfortunately.

“It was even the government’s narrative, even talking with the media to have some type of collective negotiation, to say ‘What’s done is done’ and we need to move on from it.”

“I started seeing a bunch of dead people”

By the time things more or less calmed down, it was about five o’clock, and the store’s owners were telling us that we had to leave, because if more people showed up and we were stuck spending the night in there, things would be more complicated.

The people wanted to leave and they walked toward the City Club, but they realized that there was a cordon of soldiers there, and the soldiers themselves started pointing at the people. They told them, ‘You can’t come through here, go back.’

I just heard that, because I didn’t want to come out of the bathroom, that’s where I was. There were some people who were saying that they had tried to pass through the stadium, but the other guys were in there, the bad guys.

We couldn’t move in one direction or another.

The men wanted to close up the shop, because they wanted to leave no matter what, until another person showed up and said that they were letting people go through the stadium, so then I called my husband and told him that was what I was going to do, I couldn’t stay there.

There was a crowd of people walking, running. I started to see a bunch of dead people, people who had just opened up their car doors and they were lying there… People who had lost their lives, even though they didn’t deserve it or expect it.

I felt like I was inside a video game…”

- Mitzy, woman caught in the crossfire between criminal groups and soldiers in the area of Tres Ríos, two blocks from the home of Ovidio Guzmán López, where he was detained.

The local and federal authorities sustain that fifteen people died from the shooting that day, including three innocent victims in the neighborhood of Tres Ríos, Ground Zero for the events of October 17, 2019.

Nonetheless, there are witnesses who state that they could count dozens of dead people.

On that day, vehicle thefts occurred. According to the authorities, there were more than 50 of them. Of those, at least 20 were set on fire in various points around the city, to blockade streets and highways.

The facades of businesses, homes, and public buildings were defaced, but nearly everything was repaired in less than three days.

The Style of a New Generation

Dozens of videos made the rounds of cell phones, computers, and news broadcasts. Women were seen praying, men asking their children to lie on the ground, police carrying people to safety, and armed men on trucks with more weapons aboard.

The show of power, of the physical and social control of territory, was made clear to the expectant public.

“I think that civil society and the local government found themselves in the middle of a huge surprise, given the events that were taking place. We never imagined that they would unleash that amount of terror on the public,” states Tomás Guevara Martínez, Doctor of Social Sciences and member of the Department of Psychology of the Autonomous University of Sinaloa.

The dose of reality opened up a new perspective on criminal groups in the state. People stopped viewing the Sinaloa Cartel as a savior or protector, Guevara Martínez adds.

“I am certain that most Sinaloans, being familiar with the situation in the state, were surely thinking, ‘That would never happen in Sinaloa’... Setting things on fire and shutting down the points of entry and exit for the city, firing on homes, as happens now in other states,” he states.

What occurred on October 17, 2019 was a watershed moment, with regard to the official narrative and the idyllic impression of society, based on the image created by the members of the group known as the “Sinaloa Cartel” themselves.

“The cordial relationship that had existed between civil society and the Cartel was undermined. It didn’t break, but it suffered serious cracks. I think that a significant part of civil society took the path of saying, ‘We don’t need this group in Sinaloa anymore,’” states the sociologist. However, he also called for analytical thinking regarding the current context.

In the opinion of the researcher, who is a member of the Observatory of Violence in Sinaloa, there is an historic reasoning to understanding the behavior that was witnessed that day, in order to try to free the son of Joaquín Guzmán Loera.

He explains that this behavior must be understood in the context of generational change, where the old criminals created the image of being kind-hearted individuals, defenders of their territory, while the new bosses are the children or grandchildren who have been put in charge of the inherited business.

“They grew up in luxury,” Guevara Martínez states. He then refers to different events, such as the wedding of one of Guzmán Loera’s daughters, just four months after the event that paralyzed Culiacán.

For the wedding, orders were given to close the Cathedral of Culiacán to the public. A private protection operation was set up, used from there to the event hall in a luxurious neighborhood in eastern Culiacán, where actors had been contracted to perform live.

This behavior was the key to making the public reflect on things. First, they saw the horror; then they saw the remorseless ostentation. This especially occurred with women and young men.

“Young men changed their position. Young men now saw themselves as victims, they saw themselves as vulnerable individuals, and they saw themselves as objects of exchange, they saw themselves as people who could lose their life at any moment, as a result of an event that was out of their control,” states César Burgos Dávila, Doctor of Social Psychology.

Nonetheless, that path of reflection was harmed—not by criminal groups, but by the authorities.

“I really remember that, after October 17, a few days after it happened, there was this insistence, a political message at different levels, saying that it was all in the past, that we had to get back to normal. They even said that—I don’t recall if it was Quirino, who said that he had already gone to Costco, and people had already forgotten about those violent events, and that Culiacán was now very safe, because who knows how many soldiers had arrived from the Army and the National Guard,” states the full-time researcher with the Autonomous University of Sinaloa.

“The political message was practically saying that we had to forget about it, and they invited us to believe that the State of Sinaloa was a resilient state, and we would ‘move forward.’”

The men, women, girls, and elderly people who were caught in the middle of that maelstrom of violence were left in fear. Nobody approached them to stand with them, but only to ask them to “Move forward.”

“The problem is that it seems like there were two fronts: one of them, between the cells of the criminal groups themselves, and the other, the supposed action of government authorities fighting against them. However, in both scenario A and B, there is always a civilian population that is the victim of these events,” Burgos Dávila states.

“A lot of people moved away from here”

It was something surprising, because we weren’t expecting the gunfire. We have lived here for quite some time, and that had never happened. We were not prepared for that; we were alone.

There was fear, all of us were afraid. We locked ourselves inside immediately. I went into the kitchen, because it was a safer place, even though we asked ourselves what was going on.

There were apartments that they went into because they were looking for soldiers, and we were frightened, and they were shooting at cars. Our family, our children, we were all afraid.

It lasted a long time… Well, we felt like it lasted a long time, like an hour. When everything calmed down, I went out to see what was going on.

Thank God nobody died, but we were afraid. A lot of people asked to move, they moved away from here with fear in their hearts because of everything that was happening.”

- Candelaria, resident of the “21 de marzo” military residence complex

According to the account of the federal authorities, the criminal groups who were seeking to release Ovidio Guzmán López made various threats, among which they threatened to attack the families of the military personnel living in the “21 de marzo” residential complex in Culiacán.

The warning included the mention of using grenade launchers and possibly setting fire to the gas pipes surrounding the apartment buildings.

At least 80 military families left for other residential centers, or moved out of the state, out of fear of a similar event taking place again.

Amnesia or Resilience?

The only truth that is accepted by everyone in the country is that which has been admitted by Alfonso Durazo, the Secretary of Public Safety and Citizen Protection of Mexico: the operation to capture Ovidio Guzmán López was a failure. Period.

The criminal groups who took action to release him were familiar with the local territory, an advantage they held over the authorities who, clinging to their perspective, did not know what actions to take, according to the Sinaloan sociologist and essayist, Ronaldo González Valdés.

“There is a sort of ‘uncharted territory,’ a blind spot, not specific to this particular federal administration, but one that exists, in general, for all levels of government. Local matters appear to be an unknown dimension where they move through, feeling in the dark, or an area that is simply omitted from all consideration, not only from public policy, which translates into the way that the operation was carried out that day,” he says. He later provides an example:

“That can also be seen in the way that many media work and broadcast. For instance, when someone comes to Culiacán from the national press, or from other parts of the world, they come here with a bit of that stereotypical idea, that morbid curiosity, of wanting to go see Malverde or go to the cemeteries.”

This all follows the rationale, according to González Valdés, of the fact that public policies governing matters of public security give little consideration to the local level, their social conflicts, despite the fact that social fabric can be created starting at the local level.

“What happens there is particularly important for any public policy, and especially for matters of security,” he states.

However, this way of dealing with local affairs is not exclusively something the authorities do. González Valdés believes that there is an easily observable stereotype, held by those who were not born in Sinaloa, that is based on the construction of violence and criminal authoritarianism as common actions, which is reflected in television series, journalistic accounts, and novels by authors who found this to be a profitable source of income.

The violence that was experienced on October 17, 2019, although it was unprecedented in the form in which it was exercised by the “Sinaloa Cartel” criminal organization against the population of Sinaloa, has an historical context which has been seldom analyzed outside of academia, which now has another level of nuance that requires analysis.

“I believe that the public of Culiacán, the culichis [term for Culiacán residents], has changed, but the change cannot be that drastic following an event of this nature,” he states.

The sociologist states that, according to the terms of social psychology, this change can be measured in three instances.

The first is the immediate trauma, regarding which a group of social actors was superimposed, who expressed the need for change.

“There was an interesting, constructive, immediate reaction, which has to do with the resilience that we Culiacán residents were not even aware was a part of our own collective personality,” González Valdés recalls in referring to the group named “Culiacán Valiente.”

“The large march that was held shortly afterwards, to show a decisive choice to move forward, to show opposition which was also related with a public decision that was reached, which translated into that operation which put us lives at risk.”

The second instance, according to the Sinaloan essayist, lies in how the collective psyche was affected, which translates into the reactions that all of us have had or experienced.

“For instance, I recall that in December we were getting ready to start our second session of a seminar, and after I came back from work, I saw that the streets were empty. Then I started checking social media, and I saw messages about supposed clashes between two groups. The schools were the first places to empty out that day. I mean, just think, we’re talking about over a month after October 17, and that was still going on,” he states.

The event that he refers to occurred on December 3, 2019, just a month and a half after Guzmán López was captured and then released.

On social media, videos and audio recordings were shared that narrated a similar threat to that of October 17. This immediately caused such horror that work and classes were suspended at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa.

The chaos was back, and the police were headed toward the northern end of the city in caravans of trucks, to an area where reports were made of a mobilization of armed men aboard trucks.

The Secretariat of Public Safety later classified this as a false report, but it was enough to show the collective psychosis.

“We are talking about a situation of psychosis that remains crystallized in there, like a snail inside the personality of each one of us who went through such a traumatic experience,” he ensures.

The third social reaction analyzed by the sociologist is based on the official narrative.

“This narrative of saying ‘Nothing happened here,’ beginning on the day immediately following the event. It’s perfectly understandable, but you can’t just say ‘Let’s start with a clean slate,’ from a government position. These are things that happened, and if they keep acting in the same way, they may happen again.”

That could be seen beginning on October 18, when people started cleaning the streets. The bodies that had been lying on them were being collected by the authorities, and the facades of the homes and businesses in the Tres Ríos neighborhood were being repaired.

After a very short time, the official narrative was no different. The event was not discussed in universities, or in the Chamber of Deputies or in the local media. They all heeded the call to speak positively about Sinaloa, to throw their weight behind denial, and to try to forget the pain of that wound that never healed.


Josué David Piña is a reporter and historian from Culiacán, Sinaloa. He holds a Masters in contemporary history from the Instituto de Investigaciones José María Luis Mora. 

Marcos Vizcarra is a Sinaloan reporter specialized in coverage of human rights. He is a member of Revista Espejo and has collaborated on the various projects examining disappearances.

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

La versión en español se encuentra aquí

Click here for a PDF version of this project in English. Para el PDF en español da click aquí

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