31 October 2019
- Cartel’s success in freeing leader detained by security forces will discredit President’s anti-crime strategy and embolden criminal groups
- Public will grow increasingly sceptical of President’s strategy of tackling “root causes” of crime, which will steadily undermine his approval rating
- Organised criminal groups will be encouraged by incident to take more robust action against security forces, likely leading to further increase in violence
A joint Army and National Guard unit briefly detained Ovidio Guzman, a son of Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo”, the jailed leader of the Sinaloa drugs cartel, in the northern city of Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa State, on 17 October on a warrant for his extradition to the US. However, gunmen loyal to the Guzman family intervened and forced the unit to free Ovidio and then engaged in fierce and largely indiscriminate gun battles across Culiacan that left eight people dead and sixteen injured, and plunged the city of 1 million into chaos. Military reinforcements were unable to restore order in Culiacan until the next day. Security chiefs admitted the operation was a disaster. However, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) defended the release of Ovidio, saying it prevented further bloodshed, as well as his broader security strategy, which he said was working “very well”. The events however caused widespread public criticism of the AMLO Government’s perceived surrender to the cartel’s power.
The Sinaloa cartel increased its strengthen through the 2000s to become Mexico’s dominant criminal gang. Although rival gangs and turf wars have weakened its hold during the past five years and El Chapo was extradited to the US in 2017, Guzman’s sons, including Ovidio, have continued the cartel’s activities virtually unhindered from Culiacan. As a result of the Sinaloa and rival cartels’ power, successive national governments have been unable to reverse rising associated criminal violence that has reached record levels and affects the public and businesses. However, the cartel’s ferocious response to the attempted arrest of Ovidio Guzman was unprecedented by Mexican standards. This involved dozens of gunmen bringing mayhem to Culiacan, forcing thousands of residents to take cover and businesses to shut.
The incident has various significances. Firstly, it demonstrated both domestically and internationally that the Sinaloa cartel remains a powerful force and that the faction loyal to Ovidio Guzman is capable of mobilising in a disciplined and forceful manner against the state. Secondly, it underlines that the national security forces are hampered by poor co-ordination, and that their weakness means that they are willing to submit to powerful and well-armed criminal gangs. Thirdly, the events will increase public concerns over AMLO’s security strategy, which prioritises tackling poverty as the root cause of violent crime, and rejects traditional Mexican policing methods as “repressive” and as worsening violence (see our 17 October Report). Finally, the events underline that the Government remains some distance from in any way reducing the threat from powerful and well-armed organised criminals gangs.
One political implication of this is that the public will become increasingly sceptical over AMLO’s ideologically driven security strategy, which opponents will increasingly be able to depict as “soft on crime”. The incidents will therefore increase public demands from businesses and the public on AMLO to urgently take steps to improve security. However, there is no indication that the President intends to review his policies and his stance on crime will therefore increasingly damage his popularity in the future. Meanwhile, the Sinaloa cartel’s success in freeing Ovidio Guzman is also likely to encourage factions of the Sinaloa cartel and its rivals, such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, to respond more violently to similar public security operations in the belief that law enforcement agencies can be forced to back down. This will likely lead to further upsurges in extreme violence, including in major cities in cartel-affected areas. This means that violent crime that affects businesses and investors in Mexico, either directly or collaterally, is likely to continue rising over the coming months.