Culiacanazo 2.0: Mexico attacks the Sinaloa Cartel and says goodbye to the “hugs, not bullets” strategy

The Sinaloa Cartel is one of the most impactful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, with a worldwide operational capacity. It is currently engaged in the local sale and export of drugs such as fentanyl, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. Its international reach is primarily in the United States, and it is expanding strongly into the Asia-Pacific market. In 2022, German authorities shut down the Russian deep web site Hydra Market, which facilitated drug trafficking and money laundering through cryptocurrencies. Multiple accounts were found that were attributed to the Mexican group.

On January 5, Ovidio Guzmán López, the alleged leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was captured in Culiacán, Sinaloa, and transferred in a Mexican Air Force plane to Mexico City as a result of an operation carried out on the outskirts of the city. This act resulted in a wave of violence that spread throughout the state days before the arrival of US leaders Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau for the meeting of “the three friends.”

Courtesy Mexican Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) 2019 arrest of El Chapo’s son Ovidio Guzman-López.

According to Mexico’s Secretary of National Defense, during and after the raid, 10 soldiers and 19 suspects were killed. Suspected criminals blocked roads, set fire to dozens of vehicles, and attacked planes at Culiacan International Airport. Thirty-five other military personnel were wounded, and 21 gunmen were arrested.

Guzmán López, also known as “El Ratón,” is accused of leading a faction of his father’s notorious Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world’s largest drug trafficking organizations. His father, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is serving life in prison in the US after being convicted in 2019 on drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

A very similar operation occurred on October 17, 2019, when Ovidio was first captured. On that occasion, the strategy was considered a failure as Mexican authorities decided to release Guzmán López to stop the violent acts that alleged members of the Sinaloa Cartel were carrying out. This decision provoked the event that would become known as Black Thursday or Culiacanazo. The balance of that day included 42 violently seized vehicles, nine vehicles set on fire, multiple road blockades, 14 aggressions against the army and the National Guard, an escape of 51 prisoners from the Aguaruto penitentiary, as well as the seizure of the Ninth Zone Military Barracks and multiple targets of both police and civilians.

This time, Ovidio was not released, and the operation to recapture him was considered successful. The army was able to extract Guzmán López and send him by plane to the Mexico City Prosecutor’s Office. The second Culiacanazo occurred in January 2023, coincidentally on another Thursday.

“Hugs, not bullets”. Mexico’s security strategy.

As part of his presidential campaign and as a result of a joke during a debate between candidates, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised systemic change, ending the war on drugs with a strategy he called “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not bullets). The plan involved implementing a new 60,000-strong National Guard to replace a corrupt federal police force, as well as investing in communities to combat the poverty that drives crime. The emphasis of this policy is that it would be non-violent, unlike the drug war implemented by former President Felipe Calderon, which consisted of a direct attack on drug trafficking groups.

Credit: EneasMx

However, López Obrador’s strategy has not produced good results. Rather, his presidential term has been the most violent in the country’s history. Additionally, López Obrador has not only focused on Mexico to promote his strategy. On multiple occasions, he has suggested ending the war between Russia and Ukraine by implementing his strategy. He has proposed the creation of a United Nations peace committee that would lead to a 5-year truce in the region.

Although the Mexican president seeks peaceful conflict resolution in front of the media, he does not put it into practice often. López Obrador has called for a reorientation of the bilateral drug containment policy, seeking the United States to recognize its participation as the main consumer of drugs and supplier of weapons. However, security strategies in practice continue to focus on capturing the main leaders of the cartels. This approach does not solve the problem of drug trafficking but merely generates a change in the organizational chart for criminal groups.

The “Three Friends” Summit

On January 10, 2023, the North American Leaders’ Summit (also known as the “three amigos” summit) took place, just days after the capture of Guzmán López. The summit brought together U.S. President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, with the objective of promoting a common vision for the region.

According to information provided on the summit’s results, the leaders made joint decisions regarding exchanging information, renewing commitments, and good intentions on economic issues. They also discussed the fight against pollutants, coordination in the fight against drug trafficking, migration, health, and supply chains, as well as nearshoring, which refers to the close relocation of certain companies to ensure that there is no disruption of trade.

It should be noted that the main issues discussed were the fight against drug trafficking and migration, which marked the tri-national agenda. The focus was on coordinated actions between Mexico and the United States, and President Biden expressed his concern about the uncontrolled entry of fentanyl produced in Mexico into the U.S. market.

Although there was no public mention of the Culiacanazo, it was not lost on the media and the public that Chapo’s son was captured on the eve of Joe Biden’s visit, given Guzman Lopez’s extradition order to the United States. Ovidio’s capture was perceived as a demonstration of the Mexican government’s willingness to try to resolve the difficulties it has had with its northern neighbor and to establish new priorities for its bilateral relationship, which now focuses on energy, environment, and security.

However, the drug trafficker’s defense has managed to suspend the extradition process three times in one month, and it remains to be seen if this second operation will turn out to be another failure like the first one in 2019. In early April, the judge granted Ovidio Guzman temporary legal protection.

The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration appeared before the US House of Representatives to report on the issuance of a formal request for the extradition of 16 members of the Sinaloa cartel and Ovidio Guzman. After the events in Culiacan and Sinaloa state, law enforcement officers are still patrolling the streets and roadblocks are operating, reminiscent of military operations.

Dulce María Hernández Márquez