Large parts of northwestern Mexico have descended into chaos after the fiery arrest of the son of notorious drug kingpin El Chapo, Ovidio Guzman, as Mexican authorities confirm Guzman’s extradition to the US has been halted.
Videos circulated on social media showed the town of Culiacan, where the deadly arrest operation took place, under siege by gun-wielding Sinaloa Cartel members as they blockaded streets and set infrastructure alight.
The footage shows large portions of the city consumed by flames and civilians claims local businesses were looted, as the cartel rioted for the freedom of its boss.
In one video, apparent cartel gunmen can be seen attempting to shoot down police and army helicopters. In others, cartel members are seen blocking highways and firing at Mexican military servicemen.
Two military planes were forced to make an emergency landing after being hit, Defence Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval, as one civilian plane was targeted on the runway.
Passengers on board an AeroMexico flight were forced to duck for cover as their plane came under fire at Culiacan International Airport. The passengers were seen cowering beneath seats and in the aisle as the aircraft taxied. At least one bullet hit the plane’s body, the American Broadcasting Corporation reported.
Civilians across Culiacan were told ordered to take cover as police, the military and the drug syndicate each stormed in.
Guzman was arrested in a long and fiery operation in Culiacan on Thursday, in which ten soldiers and 19 suspected criminals were killed.
He was flown to Mexico City before being transferred to the high-security Altiplano prison in central Mexico from which his father El Chapo once escaped.
El Chapo tunnelled out of the supermax prison in 2015, boarding a motorbike to freedom. Security had been increased since Guzman’s arrival, authorities said.
A colonel who commanded an infantry battalion was among those killed in the operation, the Mexican Defence Minister confirmed.
Another 35 soldiers sustained gunshot wounds and were taken to hospital, while 21 gunmen were arrested.
Multimillion dollar reward
Guzman, nicknamed “El Raton” (The Mouse), as allegedly helped to run his father’s operations since the former Sinaloa cartel boss was extradited.
The US is seeking his extradition for drug trafficking after the successful life imprisonment of El Chapo – and has offered up to $5 million for information leading to his capture.
The US State Department alleges that Guzman and his brother Joaquin Guzman-Lopez “inherited a great deal of the narcotics proceeds” following the death of another brother, Edgar Guzman-Lopez.
They “began investing large amounts of the cash into the purchasing of marijuana in Mexico and cocaine in Colombia,” the State Department said.
“They also began purchasing large amounts of ephedrine from Argentina and arranged for the smuggling of the product into Mexico as they began to experiment with methamphetamine production.”
The brothers are also alleged to have overseen 11 methamphetamine labs in the state of Sinaloa.
Extradition halted amid pressure
Just one day after Guzman’s arrest, however, a Mexico City federal judge halted his extradition to the US over the charges. Mexican law enforcement had already indicated the extradition process would be lengthy.
On Thursday, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard confirmed an arrest warrant in the US dating to September 2019, but said legal formalities meant the extradition would not be hasty. Guzman was also facing legal proceedings in Mexico, he said.
According to local media, another federal judge ordered that Guzman remain in preventative detention for 60 days until his extradition.
Guzman was previously arrested by federal authorities in October 2019, but was released on the orders of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador after his syndicate rioted in the streets.
Obrador faced heavy criticism, but said the decision was to prevent further bloodshed.
Biden prepares to visit embattled Mexico
The arrest and subsequent chaos come just days before US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are set to visit Mexico City for the North American Leaders Summit.
While some scholars speculated the operation was an elaborate attempt to display Mexican authorities as tough on crime, President Obrador denied it was linked to Biden’s impending arrival.
“About interpretations, there are a lot of them, we do not share them. We acted with autonomy,” he told reporters on Friday.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, however, said the US was “certainly grateful” for Guzman’s arrest.
The operation was “not an insignificant accomplishment by Mexican authorities,” he said.
Cocaine, meth and fentanyl
Authorities said calm had returned to Culiacan, where security forces removed dozens of stolen and burnt out vehicles scattered throughout the city of 800,000 people.
Cartel gunmen set cars and trucks ablaze at several intersections in the city, as they attempted to free their boss. Authorities reported 19 roadblocks.
El Chapo is serving a life sentence in the United States for trafficking hundreds of tons of drugs into the country over the course of 25 years.
However, his cartel remains one of the most powerful in Mexico, accused by Washington of exploiting an opioid epidemic by flooding communities in the United States with fentanyl, a synthetic drug about 50 times more potent than heroin.
Among the US State Department’s claims are that Guzman ordered the murders of informants, a drug trafficker, and a Mexican singer who refused to perform at his wedding.
— with AFP.