JESÚS MARÍA, Mexico—In the early hours of January 5, hundreds of gunmen from the Sinaloa Cartel rushed into this dusty town to try to save their boss from Mexican soldiers who had besieged his ranch, according to local residents, gang members and the like mexican military .
But the small army of gunmen proved no match for the Mexican military, which used gunboats to ambush the convoy of pickup trucks with makeshift armor and guns in the capture of Ovidio Guzmán, the son of former Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo”. to fire large-caliber guns ” Guzmán, witnesses said.
“We were defeated,” said a 30-year-old cartel gunman who wielded an AK-47 rifle and pistols and hid his face behind a black balaclava in the sparsely populated Sierra Madre mountains north of Jesús María. “They were better prepared.”
Mr. Guzmán, 32, was a pioneer in the illegal production and smuggling of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl into the United States, people involved in the deal and Mexican officials say. His cartel suffered a major blow with his capture, but a chemist in contact with other lab operators says they’ve already restarted production and will keep the business afloat.
The Sinaloa cartel, along with its main competitor, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, controls a burgeoning fentanyl trade that caused most of the 107,000 overdose deaths in the US in 2021, US officials say. Much of it is made in makeshift labs near the state capital of Culiacán.
Curbing fentanyl flows from Mexico to the United States was high on the agenda when President Biden and his Mexican counterpart Andrés Manuel López Obrador met in Mexico City just four days after the shooting.
In 2021, the U.S. State Department said the younger Mr. Guzmán, along with a brother, oversaw 11 labs in Sinaloa that produced up to 5,000 pounds of methamphetamine a month. At the time, the US offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. Mr Guzmán was charged in Washington, DC in 2018 with smuggling methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.
“They arrested him at a time when he was consolidating his power,” said Alejandro Schtulmann, head of Mexican political risk consultancy Empra.
Mr Guzmán’s lawyers could not be reached for comment. One of his lawyers told local media he didn’t know if charges would be brought against Mr. Guzmán in Mexico and that his client was suffering from serious health problems. His lawyers have filed an injunction against a US extradition request.
In the days-long battle, the cartel lost many of its home-made armored trucks. Ten soldiers, including an army colonel, and 19 cartel gunmen were killed, Mexican Defense Minister Luis Crescencio Sandoval said at a press conference the next morning. 35 soldiers were wounded, he said.
The chemist, who runs a fentanyl lab and pill factory near Culiacán, said the hundreds of gunmen mobilized by the cartel to try to save Mr Guzmán had shown its strength.
“If they kill 200 people, 500 more will pick up their guns,” he said.
The pharmacist said he closed his shop as a precaution on the day of the shooting, but six days later he restarted production of the synthetic opioid. He said other lab operators are doing the same.
“Ovidio was the boss,” he said. “But we can’t wait.”
Mr Guzmán is being held in the country’s highest security prison, the same prison from which his father spectacularly escaped through a kilometer-long tunnel in 2015. The elderly Mr Guzmán was recaptured and extradited to the US in 2017 and is now serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison in Colorado.
General Sandoval said at another press conference that the younger Mr. Guzmán led a faction of the Sinaloa cartel. He and three other sons of “El Chapo” – including Iván Archivaldo, who is considered the most powerful of the four – form the leadership of the “Chapitos”, one of the two most important groups within the loosely structured cartel.
Gen. Sandoval said the Mexican army destroyed or captured 40 cartel vehicles, including 26 armored trucks. Some were adorned with the skull and crossbones logo of the Marvel Comics anti-hero, the Punisher, alongside that of a cartoon mouse – a reference to Ovidio, whose nickname is “El Ratón,” or the mouse.
Residents of Jesús María, a town of around 2,000 people about 20 miles north of Culiacan, said they were awakened by intense gunfire at 4:20 a.m. last week. They said they were too scared to peek outside, so they ducked into bathrooms with their children or took refuge under beds.
Cartel gunmen flocked to Jesús María to rescue their boss, local residents and the Mexican military said. In Culiacan, other cartel members seized trucks, buses, and cars, set them on fire, set up roadblocks, and cut off the city. Gunmen also fired on Culiacan airport as part of efforts to prevent Mr Guzmán’s capture and extraction. A bullet struck an airliner as it prepared to take off, said Aeromexico, the country’s flagship airline. At one point, gunmen struck two Mexican Air Force planes, forcing them to make forced landings, Gen. Sandoval said.
When the 30-year-old in the black balaclava and another cartel gunman reached Jesús María in a convoy of nine armored trucks, they said they found bodies of gunmen and soldiers and armored vehicles on the road leading to Mr Guzmán’s home found on fire. Their own armored truck was destroyed and they lost 14 companions. The gunmen say the cartel lost about 70 men in total.
There are differing accounts of how the operation unfolded. According to General Sandoval, the defense secretary, the arrest was the result of six months of surveillance and intelligence work. It was set in motion suddenly when soldiers chanced upon an armed convoy Mr Guzmán was riding in, he said. General Sandoval said the soldiers were shot at and returned fire, and when the gunmen retreated into a house, the soldiers followed.
City residents and armed cartel men say there was no initial encounter with a convoy, but instead soldiers entered Mr Guzmán’s home. The army did not respond to a request for comment on this version of events.
The operation earlier this month marks a change from 2019, when the Mexican army was forced to free Mr Guzmán in broad daylight in Culiacan shortly after his capture. At that time, hundreds of armed men poured into the city and captured soldiers. Fearing a bloodbath, Mr López Obrador ordered Mr Guzmán’s release.
“We planted terror,” said the second cartel shooter involved in both attempts to free Mr. Guzmán. “We kidnapped people and said we would kill them.”
The “Culiacanazo,” as the 2019 attack became known, was a humiliation for Mr López Obrador’s government and the Mexican army, which has further strengthened drug cartels, experts said.
Érida Serrano, who lives across the street from Ovidio Guzmán’s ranch, said she hid in her bedroom, terrified, during the recent shooting to capture Mr. Guzmán. Like many other residents of Jesús María, a Guzmán family redoubt and hometown of two former wives of “El Chapo” Guzmán, Ms. Serrano, 57, has a high opinion of Ovidio, who she says helps the town’s residents , finding jobs and covering their medical and funeral expenses.
The roof and walls of Ms. Serrano’s porch were perforated by bullet holes. Four bullets pierced their windows.
“It was awful,” she said. “If I had had high blood pressure, I would have died.”
She said that at the start of the battle, two of Mr Guzmán’s bodyguards took refuge in her home. During a lull in the fighting, she said bodyguards helped wheel her to the relative safety of a neighbor’s home in her wheelchair. She is furious with the Mexican Army soldiers, who she said destroyed her house in search of weapons. She said they ransacked her home, stealing her blender, kitchen pots and her son’s tennis shoes. A spokesman for the Mexican Army did not respond to requests for comment.
To quell the displeasure of the city’s residents, the Mexican army set up a civil action unit shortly after the clash, which offered free haircuts, steak tacos and plastic water bottles over the next few days.
But most townspeople seemed to ignore the offers. Last week, around 50 residents in Culiacán and Jesús María protested, demanding the army leave the city.
“My son is terrorized by what happened,” said Sonia Mesa, one of the protesters. “We will only accept help if the army leaves.”
Mr Guzmán was evacuated from Jesús María by helicopter, General Sandoval said.
Last week, the bullet-riddled gates of Mr. Guzmán’s spacious vacation ranch home stood open and yellow police tape flapped in the wind. Hundreds of spent shell casings lay on the floor of the large parking lot and hundreds more lay on the living room floor. Dried blood was spilled on the floor of a laundry room.
After Mr. Guzmán’s capture, “the Sinaloa cartel will absorb the hit and move on,” said Adrián López, the editor of Noroeste, the leading newspaper in Culiacán.
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