(Bloomberg) -- The decision by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s security cabinet to release the captured son of the world’s most notorious drug lord left him struggling to contain the damage amid public outrage.
AMLO, as the president is known, said the government took the decision after Mexican forces were overpowered Thursday as they attempted to take in Ovidio Guzman Lopez, son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The son is said to have taken over some criminal operations from his father. The confrontation, which left eight dead, occurred in Culiacan, the capital of the western state of Sinaloa.
His public security minister, Alfonso Durazo, admitted that the operation to capture Guzman Lopez was a failure. Reporters peppered him with questions at a news conference in Culiacan, asking if he would resign. Durazo deflected, suggesting that he could do so if the moment arrives when he decides he no longer can contribute to securing peace in the nation.
“The government clearly looks bad after this,” Daniel Kerner, an analyst at Eurasia Group, wrote in a research report. “It clearly failed to plan and anticipate the response that going after the son of one of the most notable drug leaders in Mexico would generate given the cartel’s influence in the city. As such, it looks like it had no strategy and no coordination.”
The incident presents the biggest security challenge yet to Lopez Obrador, who was elected on promises to stop years of violence and has maintained an approval rate of more than 60% in polls despite a stagnant economy. Homicides are on pace to break last year’s record, according to data through August, rising more than 3% to exceed 23,000.
Cartel members on Thursday turned Culiacan into a war zone after Mexican authorities surrounded Guzman Lopez at a house where he was taking refuge. Homemade tanks complete with machine guns rumbling through the streets, stopping traffic and firing repeatedly. The city was littered with burning vehicles as residents posted videos on Twitter of gunfire and chaos. Plumes of black smoke rose over buildings.
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“This decision was taken to protect citizens,” Lopez Obrador said at his morning news conference Friday in the southern state of Oaxaca. “You can’t put out fire with fire. That’s the difference between our strategy and what previous governments have done. We don’t want deaths, we don’t want war.”
Early Saturday, Lopez Obrador said U.S. President Donald Trump called him to express “his solidarity” for the Culiacan events. “I’m thankful for the respect to our sovereignty and your willingness to maintain a good neighborhood policy,” Lopez Obrador said via Twitter. Representatives of the White House and National Security Council did not immediately reply to an emailed request for comment.
Responding to the violence in Culiacan by letting Guzman Lopez go free sends a dangerous message to drug cartels that the Mexican government can be cowed by terrorist-like attacks against civilians, said Alejandro Schtulmann, who heads Mexico City-based political consultancy Empra. It’s also embarrassing because the Sinaloa cartel’s firepower has been diminished in recent years and pales in comparison to that of other ascendant groups like the Jalisco New Generation.
Now, other groups when facing an arrest may “resort to the same methods,” he said. “This may have opened the Pandora’s box in the context of fighting organized crime in Mexico.”
The case rips open an old wound for Mexico, where El Chapo twice escaped from prison before he was recaptured and finally extradited and convicted in the U.S. It comes in a week when more than a dozen police were killed in an ambush in the deadliest attack on law enforcement since Lopez Obrador took office last December. At least 15 more people were killed in another shootout with the military in the nation’s south.
Lopez Obrador said that the suspect had an arrest warrant and an extradition request. His father was sent to the U.S. in early 2017 just as President Trump was taking office.
The son’s release was immediately decried across Mexican media, with one of the nation’s largest newspapers, Reforma, running a headline saying “Little Chapo Subdues the Fourth Transformation,” referring to the nickname that Lopez Obrador has given to his government.
AMLO Lays Out Broad Plan for Addressing Violence in Mexico
Mexico has fought a decades-long war against drug gangs, in part because it serves as a connector between cocaine-producing nations in South America and consumers in the U.S.
AMLO’s strategy focuses on deployment of tens of thousands of members from a new National Guard force to the most violent parts of the country, as well as education and subsidies for youth. But the phrase he has used to summarize his philosophy, “hugs, not shots,” has been criticized by political rivals and many security analysts as naive and Pollyannish.
The release of Guzman Lopez “sends a message of weakness to the blackmail of narcos,” said Veronica Ortiz, a lawyer and co-host on Mexico’s nonpartisan Congress channel. “It’s particularly serious for the military, because their own supreme commander is weakening them. For citizens, we’re left unprotected against criminals.”
(Updates with AMLO comments on President Trump call on 8th graph.)
--With assistance from Nacha Cattan and Jennifer A. Dlouhy.
To contact the reporters on this story: Eric Martin in Mexico City at firstname.lastname@example.org;Lorena Rios in Mexico City at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Juan Pablo Spinetto at firstname.lastname@example.org, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Ethan Bronner
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