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Mexico Boosts Military Presence After Son of Drug Kingpin 'El Chapo' Is Captured -- Update

The Wall Street Journal · 01/06/2023 15:53

By José de Córdoba and Anthony Harrup

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico bolstered its military presence in western Sinaloa state on Friday after Sinaloa Cartel gunmen went on a rampage following the capture of Ovidio Guzmán, the son of former kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.

Defense Secretary Gen. Luis Crescencio Sandoval said 10 military personnel were killed in Thursday's operation, including seven where the younger Mr. Guzmán was arrested when armed gang members tried to free him near the state capital Culiacán. Another 35 soldiers were wounded, Gen. Sandoval said at a press conference.

He said 19 members of criminal gangs were killed and 21 arrested. Authorities also seized weapons, including high-caliber machine guns, armored vehicles and some drugs. There were no reports of civilian deaths, he added.

The operation by National Guard and army troops prompted Sinaloa Cartel members to burn buses and trucks to block entrances and exits to Culiacán. They also ambushed security forces along Mexico's western coast and shot at planes at the city's airport.

More than 3,500 army and National Guard troops were deployed in the area, and 1,000 more were being deployed Friday. Sinaloa state authorities lifted an order suspending activities in the state and advising people to stay home. Sinaloa airports remained closed Friday.

"Fortunately there has been calm in the last few hours," Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said during his daily press conference. The streets in Culiacán were being cleared of burned cars that cartel members used to block roads Thursday, he said.

Mr. López Obrador denied that Mr. Guzmán's capture was related to a bilateral meeting with President Biden to be held in Mexico City on Monday. Security has long been a top item on the country's bilateral agenda.

"There is cooperation, and it will continue, but we take our decisions as a sovereign, independent government," he said.

The planned operation in which Mr. Guzmán was captured was kept under wraps by the authorities involved and there was no political consultation within the cabinet, said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.

"There is no relation between the police operation and the summit," he said Thursday.

Security cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. was strained after the arrest of former Mexican Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in 2020 at the Los Angeles airport on charges of protecting drug traffickers. Then-Attorney General William Barr dropped the charges and freed Gen. Cienfuegos after Mexico threatened to cut off cooperation with the U.S.

Mr. López Obrador at the time portrayed the DEA as running roughshod over Mexican sovereignty. Mexico's Congress then passed a law curbing the role of foreign law-enforcement officers in Mexico. The U.S. government said the legislation risked crippling bilateral efforts to battle powerful drug cartels.

Although it came at a high cost in lives, Thursday's capture of Mr. Guzmán was a victory for Mr. López Obrador's government and a tacit acknowledgment that his "hugs, not bullets" security policy of not confronting cartels wasn't working, said Ismael Bojórquez, the editor of Ríodoce, a Culiacán newspaper that covers the Sinaloa drug trade closely.

The government has recently been focusing on high-profile arrests, said Eduardo Guerrero, the director of Mexico City consulting firm Lantia Consultores.

"There has been a 30% increase in high-profile captures," he said. "They will continue with the strategy that this arrest signals."

Earlier this year, Mexican marines captured Rafael Caro Quintero, a former top Mexican drug boss who is wanted in the U.S. for the kidnapping and killing of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena in 1985.

"Things have improved, but there is still a fair amount of suspicion on both sides," said a senior U.S. official. "Caro Quintero helped a lot, this will help a lot."

Ovidio Guzmán was briefly captured by soldiers in Culiacán in 2019, but Mr. López Obrador quickly ordered his release to prevent a bloodbath after hundreds of cartel gunmen flooded the city, fighting soldiers and threatening to attack their families at a military housing project.

The U.S. has requested the extradition of Mr. Guzmán, who was indicted in 2018 in Washington on charges of smuggling methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana. Mr. López Obrador said Friday there would be no quick extradition of Mr. Guzmán to the U.S.

The Sinaloa cartel, along with its main rival the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, controls a burgeoning trade in fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that caused more than 108,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2021. Much of the fentanyl smuggled into the U.S. is produced in laboratories in Culiacán.

Public Security Minister Rosa Icela Rodríguez said Mr. Guzmán faces charges for drug-related crimes and illegal weapons possession and is also under investigation for organized crime. Further charges could emerge from the events during his arrest, she said.

Mr. Guzmán's capture risks increased violence, said Alejandro Schtulmann, head of the political risk consulting firm Empra.

"There could be fighting within the Sinaloa cartel, or the Jalisco cartel could try to take advantage to try to invade territory controlled by the Sinaloa cartel as they did in the past when El Chapo was arrested, " he said.

A fentanyl lab operator for the Sinaloa cartel said the cartel's gunmen had gone to ground in the mountains after Mr. Guzmán's detention to wait out the army's stepped-up patrols.

"There won't be any more violence if the government doesn't go any further," he said.

Mr. Guzmán was a second-tier member of the organization whose main bosses are his two brothers Iván Archibaldo Guzmán and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán. As a multinational business organization with operations in many countries, the Sinaloa cartel would absorb the capture of Mr. Guzmán as a cost of doing business, said Mr. Bojórquez.

"The cartel will continue the same with minor adjustments," he said.

Write to Anthony Harrup at anthony.harrup@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 06, 2023 15:53 ET (20:53 GMT)

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