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World & Nation

This was the moment Mexican forces captured the son of ‘El Chapo.’ Soon after, they freed him

It is an extraordinary video — a behind-the-scenes look at what happened this month when Mexican security forces briefly captured one of the world’s most-wanted cartel leaders.

In the clip, which was released Wednesday by Mexico’s defense secretary, Ovidio Guzman Lopez is shown surrendering to soldiers who had trapped him in a home in the northern city of Culiacan.

Instead of putting Guzman in handcuffs and immediately taking him into custody, the soldiers instead waited while he made a phone call.

Outside, fighters from Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel were seizing control of the city, taking hostages, blocking intersections with burning vehicles and laying siege to a housing complex for the families of military personnel. The soldiers, who at that point probably knew they had no clear way out, asked Guzman to order his men to stand down.

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“Tell them to leave now!” a soldier is heard shouting at the 28-year-old Guzman, who is the son of notorious drug boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The video shows the desperation of Mexican authorities during the failed operation to capture the younger Guzman, who is wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

Eventually, the soldiers freed Guzman and retreated, a decision that Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has defended as necessary to save lives.

The video was part of a detailed presentation by Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval, who used maps, diagrams and photographs to explain to reporters how cartel gunmen overpowered elite security forces with paramilitary tactics and an arsenal of machine guns and homemade tanks.

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He showed a graphic video of one soldier who had part of his leg blown off by bullets and a photograph of another who had been taken hostage, his eyes shielded with a blindfold.

The presentation seemed designed to suggest that Mexican authorities had no option other than to release Guzman. “The most important thing is the protection of citizens, the protection of lives,” Lopez Obrador said.

Still, much has not been made public about the failed operation, most notably who ordered it.

Neither Sandoval nor the president took questions.

In the aftermath of the incident, top Mexican officials changed their story repeatedly, saying at first that soldiers had happened upon Guzman while on a routine patrol. Later, they acknowledged that the operation had been planned, but suggested that it had been carried out by rogue security forces who had not received authorization from their superiors.

Many in Mexico doubt that claim, saying that top military officials would have known about an operation of this magnitude.

Lopez Obrador has said he was also unaware of the operation to target Guzman.

Another key question has to do with the legal basis of the operation. Authorities lacked a search warrant when they entered Guzman’s property, which made the raid illegal from the beginning, according to multiple experts.

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Officials had attributed the delay in removing Guzman from his home to the lack of a warrant, saying soldiers were forced to wait after capturing Guzman for one to be issued.

On Wednesday, Sandoval also blamed “the rapid reaction of criminals, attacks on military personnel and their families and the intention of the criminal group to cause damage to the population.”

There were other crucial blunders. Not only did authorities underestimate the firepower of their foes, they also carried out the raid in a place that made a safe exit for soldiers almost impossible.

Culiacan, a city of just under a million people about an hour’s drive from the Pacific Ocean, has long been a stronghold of the Sinaloa cartel. And the home where Guzman was captured is in the Tres Rios neighborhood at the end of a cul-de-sac, which allowed the cartel fighters to easily seal off the only way out.

The neighborhood is bordered on two sides by rivers. By blocking a handful of bridges and other intersections, the cartel was able to trap security forces as well as thousands of civilians who happened to be in the posh shopping and dining district at the time.

Videos of the siege show terrified residents caught in the crossfire, including scores of uniformed children who had just gotten out of school.

Mexico’s president has urged journalists not to dwell on the Culiacan operation, but critics have continued to demand more answers about why the government launched such a risky operation in the middle of the day in a known cartel stronghold without proper legal clearance.

“In an operation like this, what you would of course want to have is a very clear and prepared exit plan and strategy,” said Alejandro Poire Romero, who served as interior secretary under then-President Felipe Calderon.

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Poire called the operation itself and the government’s shifting explanation of what happened “erratic.”

“We went to kick a wasp,” tweeted Esteban Illades, a columnist at Milenio newspaper. “And were surprised when the wasps got angry.”

The botched raid has also strained Mexico’s relationship with the United States.

During a U.S. congressional hearing last week, Rich Glenn, deputy assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said the operation in Culiacan raised questions about Mexico’s dedication to fighting organized crime.

“The events of last week were very concerning to us,” he said. “What we need to see is greater political ... commitment from the highest levels of government in Mexico.”

Lopez Obrador pushed back on those comments, saying that the U.S. must respect Mexico’s sovereignty and that “officials from other countries should not offer opinions about internal issues that only concern our government.”

Under previous Mexican presidents, the two nations collaborated closely on matters of security, with the U.S. spending more than $2 billion on training for Mexican police officers and soldiers and other anti-crime initiatives in recent years.

U.S. officials helped identify top drug cartel leaders and develop plans to pursue them.

The prime example is the capture of El Chapo, who was detained by Mexican authorities with help from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials twice and later extradited to the United States. Convicted of drug trafficking and murder charges this year, he was sentenced to life in prison.

But Lopez Obrador, an amateur historian who has written frequently about American imperialist tendencies in Mexico, has called for a different and more autonomous security strategy.

Earlier this year, he declared an end to the government’s war on cartels and said that instead he will address inequality and poverty and other root causes of crime. He has said the militarized strategy of his predecessors has only increased insecurity and turned Mexico “into a graveyard.” The homicide rate is at an all-time high.

Lopez Obrador has also made surprising entreaties to members of the Sinaloa cartel. As a candidate for president, he visited the rural mountain enclave where El Chapo grew up. This year he instructed Mexican immigration officials to help the imprisoned drug lord’s mother and sisters get humanitarian visas that would allow them to travel to the U.S. to visit him.

On Wednesday, Lopez Obrador reaffirmed his approach even as he warned criminal groups not to confuse it with impunity.

“There is not a war against drug trafficking,” he said.

Fisher is a special correspondent.


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