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Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has tried to avoid direct confrontations with the country’s well-armed criminal cartels. Photo: Reuters

Freeing El Chapo’s son prevented cartel slaughter that would have left 200 people dead, Mexican president says

  • Ovidio Guzman Lopez’s arrest last October prompted cartels to lay siege to the streets of Culiacan, leaving military and police outgunned
  • Lopez was released, in an embarrassing climbdown for authorities described by one journalist as ‘the capitulation of the state’
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador acknowledged Friday that he was personally behind one of the most embarrassing episodes of his term – a manhunt in which soldiers captured and then released a son of the notorious cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
“I ordered that this operation be stopped and that this presumed criminal be freed,” Lopez Obrador told reporters.

He defended the decision, saying it likely saved hundreds of lives.

Mexico captures El Chapo’s son – and then releases him amid gun battle

The arrest of Ovidio Guzman Lopez on October 17 led to hours-long gun battles and cartel roadblocks on the streets of Culiacan in northwestern Sinaloa state, leaving at least 14 people dead, according to official accounts.

The scenes of warlike violence stunned Mexicans watching a live broadcast from the besieged city. It ended only after outgunned military and police units retreated and handed Guzman over to his confederates.

The bungled operation drew widespread condemnation at home and abroad as a humiliating defeat and indisputable evidence that criminal gangs hold the upper hand in Culiacan and across broad swathes of Mexico.

At the time, the president voiced support for the retreat, but said that his security chiefs had made the decision. But on Friday, Lopez Obrador said he had chosen the best alternative in difficult circumstances.

“If we hadn’t suspended [the operation] more than 200 innocent people … would have lost their lives,” the president said.

Ovidio Guzman Lopez at the moment of his detention in Culiacan, Mexico. Photo: AP

His public revival of the debacle renewed debate.

“A humanitarian decision or the capitulation of the state?” Mexican journalist Víctor Trujillo asked on Twitter.

Ovidio Guzman Lopez and his older brother, Joaquin Guzman Lopez, face drug-trafficking charges in the United States.

Lopez Obrador said Friday that a day or two after the failed operation US President Donald Trump called to offer help.

The Mexican president said he declined that offer as well as a similar overture following the killings in November of nine dual US-Mexican citizens – all women and children members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect – in an apparent cartel ambush in northern Sonora state.

Outcry from Mexico at Trump plan to designate its drug cartels as terrorists

“In a very respectful manner, we thanked him [Trump] for his offer and he understood that it is our duty to respond to these cases,” Lopez Obrador said on Friday.

In his 18 months in office, Lopez Obrador has tried to avoid direct confrontations with the country’s well-armed criminal cartels. He has described his approach as “hugs not bullets”, voicing the hope that new job opportunities, training and scholarships would deter young people from joining violent gangs.

But homicides have continued to surge, even in recent months as much of the country was in semi-lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: President admits freeing drug lord’s son