Mexican security police attempting to arrest a son of convicted drug kingpin El Chapo came under heavy fire from armed fighters Thursday, turning the city of Culiacan in northwest Mexico into a free-fire zone, with residents cowering in cars and supermarkets, according to media reports.
Sinaloa state public security secretary Cristóbal Castañeda told Televisa at least two people were killed and 23 injured.
At one point, armed civilians in trucks roared through the city’s center shooting what appeared to be .50-caliber sniper rifles and machine guns, according to the Associated Press. At least 27 people escaped from a local prison.
Numerous videos of the clashes, with fighters riding in pickup trucks and firing at will, were posted on Twitter.
Culiacan, the scene of the clashes, is in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, which is home to the drug cartel by the same name. The Sinaloa drug ring was led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, who was sentenced to life in prison in the United States in July.
Ovidio Guzmán, the target of the operation, was not one of El Chapo’s best-known sons — Iván Archivaldo Guzmán and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán, who are are known as “los Chapitos,” or “the little Chapos.” Those sons are believed to currently run their father’s cartel together with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
Ovidio Guzmán was indicted in 2018 by a grand jury in Washington, along with a fourth brother, for the alleged trafficking of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.
Mexican security secretary Alfonso Durazo said the ordeal Thursday began after 30 members of the National Guard and army came under fire outside a house where Ovidio Guzmán was staying.
There were conflicting reports as to whether he was arrested and freed, or was simply never taken into custody.
Durazo told the Televisa network the house was surrounded by heavily armed gunmen who had “a greater force” and authorities decided to suspend the operation.
Durazo told Reuters the decision to pull back from the house without Guzman was taken “to try to avoid more violence in the area and preserve the lives of our personnel and recover calm in the city.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Friday the army operation was based on an arrest warrant, adding that he backed the decisions of his security officials.
“The capture of one criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of people,” the Mexican president said, calling the response to the operation “very violent” and saying many lives were put at risk.
“This decision was made to protect citizens. … You cannot fight fire with fire,” he added. “We do not want deaths. We do not want war.”
José Luis González Meza, a lawyer for El Chapo’s family, told the AP the family said “Ovidio is alive and free” but he had no more details about what happened.
Contributing: Associated Press