Last Thursday, October 17, 2019, a sprawling gunfight broke out in Culiacán, Mexico when officials attempted to arrest a son of the infamous drug lord, “El Chapo” Guzmán. The United States indicted the son, Ovidio Guzmán López, alongside his brother, with conspiracy to distribute drugs to be into the country in February. Time reports that 35 Mexican security officials entered Guzmán’s home to fulfil the extradition request placed by the U.S. Once inside, officials found Guzmán and three others, and subsequently placed Guzmán under arrest. Within minutes, a greater force of armed gunmen surrounded the house. According to NPR, the gunmen fought with sniper rifles and truck-mounted machine guns. The paramilitary troops of the cartel also took control of tollbooths and main roads into the city, increasing the difficulty of a more significant governmental response.
During the clash, there was a breakout at the Aguarato Prison. Sinaloa Public Security Secretary Cristóbal Castañeda claims that inmates rioted, with 56 escaping and 49 still at large as of last Friday. The conflict left over 40 wounded and at least eight dead, including several cartel members, a member of the National Guard, a prisoner, and a civilian. In fear of further civilian casualties, Mexican officials released Guzmán. Mexico’s recently elected president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, supported the decision to let Guzmán go, stating, “the capture of one criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of people.” Even though the incident didn’t escalate further, main roads were still blocked by burning cars, schools were closed, and government offices asked their employees to stay home on Friday morning.
The operation to capture Guzmán is emblematic of Mexico’s systemic failure to deal with the issue of organized crime. Mike Vigil, former Chief of International Operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, even went so far as to describe the attack as “a massive black eye to the Mexican government.” As the Washington Post reports, it is well-known that the Sinaloa cartel functionally controls the politics and economy of Culiacán, but this level of violence was previously unheard of. During the conflict, the entirety of Culiacán, a city of over a million people, was solely in the hands of a cartel.
Obrador ran on the promise of shifting the government away from a reliance on military responses to organized crime, but he has yet to implement many of those central campaign promises due to entrenched political opposition. Obrador continues to embrace the failed strategy of past administrations by using military operations and the National Guard as the driving force of his plan to combat crime. That militarization of crime-fighting breeds public resentment and contributes to anti-government sentiment, which only serves to fuel organized crime recruitment. Resentment is most common when operations, like those in Culiacan on Thursday, result in civilian casualties. Still, Obrador’s dependence on military solutions is not a sufficient reason to deny any prospects for change.
The promises of Obrador’s campaign still hold broad appeal, as evidenced by the fact that he retains an approval rating around 70%, as found by The Guardian. Those ratings are most likely attributable to Obrador’s shift to focusing on poverty instead of free trade and globalization like past presidents. He has proposed policies that would increase state control of the economy via social programs by providing thousands of jobs to young people across Mexico. Experts widely accept that poverty is a primary driver for involvement in organized crime, and so, if implemented, Obrador’s policies would result in a sizeable decrease in organized crime, promote better living conditions for Mexico’s poorest citizens, and dramatically reduce civilian casualties.
Beyond that, Obrador has held daily press conferences to combat the corruption that has plagued Mexico for decades and contributed to the rise of organized crime. Such conferences increase public awareness and involvement in the issues at stake. Additionally, Obrador favors public referendums on issues, which gives citizens more direct influence and cuts out the “middle man” of government officials who are susceptible to corruption by cartels. Obrador should leverage his widespread public appeal to overcome political opposition and implement his proposed agenda, which would revolutionize Mexico’s approach to combatting crime for the betterment of Mexico and the world.