Fierce gunfights erupted in the northern Mexican city of Culiacán on Thursday, as the Sinaloa Cartel mobilised to prevent security forces arresting one of the sons of jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Video footage of the violence included dramatic scenes of men with heavy-calibre weapons cruising in trucks, a gunman lying in the road opening fire and burning lorries blockading streets.
The war zone-like scenes, which apparently thwarted the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, marked a serious escalation of violence after two major clashes elsewhere in Mexico this week killed 29 people. The deterioration came despite security minister Alfonso Durazo on Monday hailing that a “tipping point” had been reached in the country’s surging violence.
José Luis González Meza, a lawyer for El Chapo, told Milenio Televisión, a cable news channel, that the younger Guzmán “has appeared, thank God”, had been in touch with his family and was free.
In a confusing message aired on social media, Mr Durazo, flanked with military and police chiefs, avoided saying if Mr Guzmán had been arrested and freed or not been arrested at all.
Mr Durazo said a routine patrol of soldiers and the new National Guard had chanced upon Mr Guzmán in a house in Culiacán on Thursday afternoon after coming under attack.
But the troops were swiftly outnumbered as gunmen surrounded the house, sparking terror among residents. Mr Durazo said Mexico’s security cabinet “agreed to suspend its actions” so the local population were not put at risk.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ducked questions about what had happened on his arrival in the southern city of Oaxaca. Mr López Obrador, who has summed up his security strategy with the slogan “hugs not bullets” and has urged cartel members to “think of their mothers”, said he would provide more details on Friday.
Mexican media aired images of the 28-year-old alleged cocaine and methamphetamine trafficker, nicknamed “El Ratón”, or “The Mouse”, who could face extradition if arrested to the US where his father, the Sinaloa Cartel boss, was convicted earlier this year.
There was no immediate confirmation of the number of dead or wounded in Thursday afternoon’s firefights. Authorities in Culiacán urged locals to stay indoors. Schools and a football match were suspended. Adding to the chaos, there were reports that 20-30 prisoners had broken out of jail in Culiacán.
Mr López Obrador has vowed to pacify the country, where several states are immersed in extreme violence, and says his programmes of bursaries for young people will help stop them falling into the clutches of organised crime.
The government has also called on the US to do more to stop the flow of guns south of the border, most of which find their way into the hands of criminals.
On Monday, hours after Mr Durazo said the upward trend in homicides had reached an inflection point, 13 police were killed in an ambush in the western state of Michoacán by the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
The following day, one soldier and 14 civilians were killed in an attack in the state of Guerrero, although human rights groups have urged a full investigation amid suspicions of extrajudicial killings.
Additional reporting by Alan Hernández Pastén in Mexico City