Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended security forces on Friday over their handling of a shocking outbreak of drug violence, saying they had saved lives by releasing a son of jailed kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after his brief capture. Cartel gunmen surrounded security forces in the north-western city of Culiacan on Thursday and made them free the drug lord’s son Ovidio Guzman, after his detention triggered gun battles and a prison break that stunned the city.
Lopez Obrador was asked at his regular morning news conference who had taken the decision to release Guzman’s son, and he said that his top security officials had made the call, adding that he supported it because it saved lives.
“The officials who took this decision did well,” Lopez Obrador said. “We’re doing really well in our strategy.”
The violent reaction in Culiacan, in Sinaloa state, to Guzman’s capture was on a scale rarely seen during Mexico’s long drug war, even after his more famous father’s arrests.
Chaos in the city continued into the night.
A large group of inmates escaped from the city prison. Residents cowered in shopping centres and supermarkets as gunfire roared. Black plumes of smoke rose across the skyline.
Lopez Obrador, a veteran leftist who took office in December, rejected criticism that the government had acted weakly in releasing the younger Guzman, describing this view as “conjecture” put about by his adversaries to discredit him.
A trenchant critic of past administrations, Lopez Obrador said the previous strategy had turned Mexico into a “graveyard” and that his critics wanted him to continue with it.
He said security forces had swooped in to capture Ovidio Guzman after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest and extradition. On Thursday the government said the soldiers had come under fire as they neared the house where Guzman was.
The chaos in Culiacan, long a stronghold for the Guzmans’ Sinaloa cartel, has turned up pressure on Lopez Obrador, who took office promising to pacify a country weary after more than a decade of gang violence, disappearances and shootouts.
However, murders in 2019 are set to reach a record high.
Thursday’s events follow the massacre of more than a dozen police in western Mexico earlier this week and the killing of 14 suspected gangsters by the army a day later.
The elder Guzman escaped from prison in Mexico twice, in 2001 and 2015. Under the previous administration, security forces captured him two times in Sinaloa; in 2014 and 2016.
The previous government extradited the senior Guzman to the United States on the eve of President Donald Trump’s accession. He was found guilty in a US court in February of smuggling tons of drugs and sentenced to life in prison.
Joaquin Guzman is believed to have about 12 children including Ovidio.
The US Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against Ovidio and another of the brothers in February, charging them with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana in the US.