Residents of Mexico’s Sinaloa state capital of Culiacán were paralyzed with fear as gunfire erupted after authorities briefly detained and then released a son of former Sinaloa Cartel capo “El Chapo” Guzmán, underscoring just how far the country’s security situation has spiraled out of control.

Armed gunmen hidden inside a home attacked a team of 30 members of Mexico’s National Guard and Army allegedly conducting a “routine patrol” in the Tres Ríos area of Culiacán on October 17, Security Minister Alfonso Durazo announced in a press release.

After fending off the attack and seizing control of the house, authorities temporarily apprehended Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of imprisoned former Sinaloa Cartel captain Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” before releasing him.

Security forces were quickly surrounded and outnumbered by various armed Sinaloa Cartel cells that poured into the city as backup to free him, according to authorities.

Culiacán then plunged into total chaos as the city resembled a war zone more than a business hub. Smoke billowed into the air from burned out cars, heavily armed men — some with .50 caliber rifles likely sourced from the United States — patrolled the streets and exchanges of gunfire abounded as locals caught in the crossfire fled in terror.

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Meanwhile, at least 20 inmates escaped from Culiacán’s local prison. Presumed video footage of the escape purports to show inmates linking up with armed men and stopping cars driving on the street.

Security Minister Durazo came to the decision to release Guzmán López, with the support of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, citing the dangers to residents from continued gunfire. 

“We took this decision to protect the lives of the citizenry. You can’t fight fire with fire. That’s how this administration is different from previous ones. We don’t want war,” the president said.

Guzmán López is just one of El Chapo’s many children, and is wanted by authorities in both Mexico and the United States. In February of this year, US authorities indicted him and his brother, Joaquín Guzmán López, on drug conspiracy charges.

InSight Crime Analysis

After the sheer mayhem that spread throughout Culiacán, there should be no doubts about just how strong the Sinaloa Cartel remains in the absence of El Chapo.

In a matter of hours, the group exerted near total control over Sinaloa’s bustling capital city, using burned out cars and roadblocks to monitor who was coming in and out of the city as they radioed in reinforcements from neighboring municipalities to join in on the battle. 

In one video, supposed Sinaloa Cartel members appear to outnumber and outgun members of Mexico’s army, who are seemingly unable to establish control of the situation.

In El Chapo’s absence, the Sinaloa Cartel has experienced some internal strife. His sons, namely Guzmán López, Iván Archivaldo, and Jesús Alfredo, known collectively as “Los Chapitos,” are presumed to be in conflict with Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo,” one of the final members of the group’s old guard who may be looking to get rid of them.

The brothers have also been at odds with their uncle, Aureliano Guzmán Loera, alias “El Guano,” over the group’s operations.

Nonetheless, the Sinaloa Cartel was united enough to mobilize and come to the rescue of Guzmán López. The group remains one of Mexico’s most powerful organized criminal organizations, in large part because of its horizontal distribution of power and decision-making authority.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile

The fact that cartel operatives were able to overwhelm security forces and compel authorities to release Guzmán López also speaks to just how poorly the government’s operation in the area was planned and carried out. There appears to have been a severe lack of coordination between local, state and federal forces. This ultimately put residents and law enforcement at risk, prompting the decision to abandon Guzmán López’s capture altogether.

In the past, operations to capture some of Mexico’s high-level targets, such as former Gulf Cartel leader Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, alias “Tony Tormenta,” were carried out by elite units equipped with superior firepower

The havoc wreaked in Culiacán is the culmination of a week defined by deadly violence and the lack of a clear government plan to combat it.

On October 14, at least 14 Michoacán state police officers were killed in an ambush presumably carried out by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG). The next day in neighboring Guerrero state, 14 suspected criminal actors were killed in an alleged shootout with security forces, although the lopsided death toll has raised questions about the excessive use of force.

With the ability of one of Mexico’s strongest criminal organizations to launch a targeted attack against government officials to free one of its members — and win — the López Obrador administration will now hear howls to bring the cartels under control and to develop an effective security strategy.