Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 581, 12 January 2023

Mexico: Violence in Culiacan triggered by the arrest of cartel leader
Madhura Mahesh

In the news
On 5 January, security forces captured drug cartel leader Ovidio Guzman in Culiacan, Sinaloa and transferred him to the Altiplano prison. The arrest triggered violence in Culiacan, killing 29 people, 19 cartels members and 10 military personnel. The cartel members reportedly set fire to 250 cars used to block roads and tried to take over the city’s airport where a civilian plane was caught in the crossfire; causalities were reported.

On 6 January, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador praised the military’s success in capturing Guzman and added: “That the presence of elements of the Ministry of Defence, the National Guard, the state police, that is collaborating, will be maintained, and that this protection will be maintained so that there is no damage to the civilian population throughout Sinaloa.”

On 8 January, AP News called the operation a “display of muscle” ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Mexico. It also quoted Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope who said that the arrest was mostly due to pressure from the US. Obrador denied these claims saying: “There is cooperation, and there will continue to be, but the decisions are made as a sovereign, independent government, and these decisions are made in the Security Cabinet.

Issues at large
First, the drug cartels and violence. Guzman, the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, belongs to the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful cartels in the world. In 2019, when Guzman was first arrested, the cartel members opened fire using machine guns and burned buses and cars in Culiacan, killing many civilians. This has also been the case whenever a cartel leader is arrested across Mexico. Cartels in Mexico control large territories which form their sphere of influence and base of operation. These cartels have developed good relations with local politicians and security personnel to prevent any investigation and a potential suspension of their activities.

Second, the government response to cartel violence. When Obrador came to power in 2018, he promised to restructure Mexico’s response to drug cartels and cartel violence. He has been critical of prior governments and the use of heavy military assault on drugs which started the turf war in Mexico. Obrador’s government has followed a “do not fight fire with fire” policy and focused on addressing the root causes of such violence and homicide. One of Obrador’s strategies was decriminalising certain drugs such as marijuana to prevent illegal cultivation and sale by cartels in Mexico. This strategy largely failed as Obrador has not been able to tackle drug cartels and Mexico has seen an increase in gang-related violence in recent years. Obrador has also been accused of going soft on cartels due to his frequent visit to Sinaloa and his close interactions with some of the cartel leader’s family.

Third, the role of the US. In 2019, a Manhattan district court sentenced El Chapo to a lifetime for abetting in the opioid crisis that led to the deaths of thousands. The US and Mexican authorities have always collaborated in the arrest of cartel leaders and drug and arms traffickers. In 2021, the two countries signed a new Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities which outlined a new holistic approach to deal with drug trafficking and violence. This was largely unsuccessful due to the lack of bilateral discussions and funds and the US’s kingpin approach to dealing with cartels. The US has always extradited cartel leaders hoping to curtail cartel operations, but the arrest of cartel leaders has always led to an increase in violence and operations.

In perspective
First, a win for the Obrador administration. After the release of Guzman in 2019, Obrador faced a lot of backlash from the military and the public. With the arrest of Guzman, Obrador gained back the support of the military. The timing of the arrest coincided with the North American leader’s summit where illegal drug trafficking will be one of the issues discussed.

Second, no change in the structure and function of the Sinaloa Cartel. When El Chapo was arrested and sentenced to prison there was no change seen in the functioning of the cartel. The US authorities noted an increase in the number of drugs trafficked. Hence Guzman's arrest will not lead to any significant change in the cartel’s operations.

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