Ten soldiers and 19 suspected criminals have been killed in an operation to apprehend the son of captured drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Mexican government said Friday, with a dramatic gun battle that sparked terror at an airport.
Thousands of soldiers retook control of the Sinaloa cartel stronghold of Culiacan, which resembled a war zone after enraged gunmen went on a rampage to try and free their boss.
Ovidio Guzman was captured in the northwestern city on Thursday and flown to Mexico City before being transferred to the high-security Altiplano Prison in central Mexico from which “El Chapo” once escaped.
Nicknamed “El Raton” (the mouse), the 32-year-old has allegedly helped his father since the former Sinaloa cartel boss was extradited to the United States in 2017.
A colonel commanding an infantry battalion was among those killed after his team was attacked following the arrest, Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval told reporters.
Another 35 soldiers suffered gunshot wounds and were taken to hospital, while 21 gunmen were arrested.
Sandoval said a civilian plane about to take off from Culiacan International Airport, as well as two Mexican Air Force planes, were hit by gunfire as cartel henchmen tried to free Ovidio Guzman.
The military planes “had to make an emergency landing” after receiving “a significant number of hits,” Sandoval said.
There were no injuries in the plane strikes and Culiacan airport resumed operations on Friday.
– Multi-million dollar bounty –
The United States had offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Ovidio Guzman’s arrest. It accuses him of being a key player in the Sinaloa Cartel founded by his father.
The arrest came as Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador prepared to welcome his US counterpart Joe Biden to a North American leadership summit next week where security is expected to be high on the agenda.
The drug trafficker’s capture was “no insignificant achievement by Mexican authorities,” said US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
“And we’re certainly grateful for that,” he said, adding that the United States would continue to work “in close connection” with Mexico, specifically to tackle the trafficking of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Mexico denied that the United States was involved in the operation to capture Ovidio Guzman.
“We act autonomously, independently. Yes, there is cooperation and there will be, but we make the decisions as a sovereign government,” Lopez Obrador told reporters.
Ovidio Guzman received a court order to block his immediate extradition to the United States.
In any case, the Mexican government ruled out an expedited extradition and said proper legal process would be followed.
– Cocaine, meth and fentanyl –
Authorities said calm had returned to Culiacan, where security forces removed dozens of stolen and burnt-out vehicles scattered across the city of 800,000.
Videos posted on social media on Thursday showed passengers and employees of Aeromexico airlines ducking behind counters when gunfire rang out at Culiacan airport.
Cartel gunmen set cars and trucks on fire at several city intersections, and authorities reported 19 roadblocks.
El Chapo is serving a life sentence in the United States for smuggling hundreds of tons of drugs over the course of 25 years.
However, his cartel remains one of the most powerful in Mexico and has been accused by Washington of exploiting an opioid epidemic by flooding communities across the United States with fentanyl, a synthetic drug about 50 times more potent than heroin.
Ovidio Guzman and one of his brothers are charged with overseeing nearly a dozen methamphetamine labs in Sinaloa and conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana, the US State Department said.
Ovidio Guzman also allegedly ordered the murder of informants, a drug trafficker and a Mexican singer who refused to perform at his wedding.
He was briefly detained once before in 2019, but security forces released him after his cartel waged all-out war in response.
His release led to sharp criticism of Lopez Obrador, who said the decision was made to protect civilian lives.
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