Mexican authorities say they backed off an attempt to capture a son of former drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after cartel gunmen shooting heavy weapons and burning vehicles paralysed the capital of Sinaloa state.
Twenty-one people were wounded, state public security secretary Cristobal Castaneda said, and 27 inmates escaped from a prison, as law enforcement officers were apparently outgunned.
Security secretary Alfonso Durazo said 30 members of the National Guard and army were patrolling in Culiacan when they were fired on from a house on Thursday. They repelled the attack and inside the house found Ovidio Guzman Lopez, son of the convicted Sinaloa cartel boss.
The house was then surrounded by heavily armed gunmen who had “a greater force” and authorities decided to suspend the operation, Mr Durazo said.
He did not say if Ovidio Guzman had been arrested or went free, but he told Televisa that security forces left the house without him.
“With the goal of safeguarding the well-being and tranquillity of Culiacan society, officials in the security cabinet decided to suspend the actions,” Mr Durazo said.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he backed the decisions of his security officials, and added that the army operation was based on an arrest warrant.
“The capture of one criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of people,” Mr Lopez Obrador said, calling the response to the operation “very violent” and saying many lives were put at risk.
“This decision was made to protect citizens. You cannot fight fire with fire,” he added. “We do not want deaths. We do not want war.”
Jose Luis Gonzalez Meza, a lawyer for El Chapo’s family, told the Associated Press that Guzman’s family said “Ovidio is alive and free”, but had no more details about what happened.
Ovidio was not one of the jailed Mexican drug lord’s best-known sons — Ivan Archivaldo Guzman and Jesus Alfredo Guzman are known as “los Chapitos”, or “the little Chapos”, and are believed to run their father’s Sinaloa cartel with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
But Ovidio Guzman was indicted in 2018 by a grand jury in Washington, along with a fourth brother, for the alleged trafficking of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.
Culiacan exploded in violence on Thursday with armed civilians in trucks roaring through the city’s centre shooting sniper rifles and machine guns.
Videos published on social media showed a scene resembling a war zone, with gunmen, some wearing black ski masks over their faces, riding in the back of trucks firing mounted machine guns as vehicles burned.
People could be seen running for cover as machine gun fire rattled around them, and drivers drove in reverse to get away from the clashes.
Mr Castaneda told Milenio television there were people wounded but did not provide a casualty figure. He did not rule out that there were deaths.
State officials asked residents to avoid going out in parts of city, and Sinaloa’s football club Dorados announced it had cancelled a game for security concerns.
Govenor Quirino Ordaz confirmed that school classes had been suspended but businesses would open on Friday.