Mexico captures son of El Chapo, alleged fentanyl trafficker, ahead of Biden visit

Mexican Government TV/Handout via REUTERS / File
Ovidio Guzman, son of kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is briefly captured by Mexican military police in a residential compound near the centre of Culiacan in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico October 17, 2019 in this still image taken from a helmet camera footage obtained October 30, 2019.

MEXICO CITY – The Mexican military on Thursday captured Ovidio Guzmán, the son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and allegedly one of the country’s top fentanyl traffickers, days before President Joe Biden was expected to visit Mexico and press for action against criminal groups that have deluged the United States with the deadly opioid.

Ovidio Guzmán’s detention, long sought by Washington, was hailed by Mexican Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval as a “powerful blow” to drug cartels. But in a sign of the cartels’ strength, the arrest sparked a wave of retaliatory violence in western Sinaloa state, with gunmen throwing up roadblocks, seizing cars from terrified residents and firing at planes at the airport in Culiacán, the capital.

Thursday was the second time Guzmán was taken into federal custody, and it marked a moment of redemption for the Mexican government. Three years ago, he was briefly detained in Culiacán, then set free as Sinaloa cartel gunmen seized control of much of the city. It was a humiliating retreat for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in 2018 pledging to end the “war on drugs,” and it was a worrying sign for U.S. officials, who feared he would be unwilling to challenge powerful trafficking groups.

Analysts and former U.S. officials said the latest arrest appeared timed to appease Biden in advance of the summit – part of a pattern of the Mexican government nabbing major narcos or announcing big busts before key bilateral meetings.

“It’s like the AMLO administration is saying, ‘We have to show Biden that we’re doing something,’ ” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a Mexican political analyst, referring to the president by his initials.

Mexican officials denied that the raid was politically motivated. “An operation like this takes lots of planning, and we can’t choose the dates of something like this,” Roberto Velasco, a senior Foreign Ministry official, said in an interview.

Ovidio Guzmán, 32, is one of several sons of El Chapo who have allegedly assumed prominent roles in the Sinaloa cartel since their father – once the organization’s powerful leader – was extradited to the United States in 2017. The group has long been a major exporter of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, and it has emerged as one of the top suppliers of fentanyl in recent years. The cartel is believed to control much of the drug traffic across the southwest U.S. border.

El Chapo was indicted in U.S. federal court in Washington in 2018 on cocaine, meth and marijuana trafficking charges. The State Department had offered up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.

Mexico has become the principal supplier of fentanyl to the United States, overtaking China in 2019, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. U.S. fatalities from drug overdoses topped 107,000 in 2021, the highest ever. Two-thirds involved fentanyl, which is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, according to a Washington Post analysis.

“Since August of last year, Customs and Border Patrol have seized more than 20,000 pounds of deadly fentanyl,” Biden said in a speech Thursday. “It’s a killer. It’s a flat killer.”

Biden is scheduled to arrive in the Mexican capital on Monday, the first trip to this country by a U.S. president in nine years. He is expected to meet with López Obrador to discuss issues including migration, fentanyl and trade ahead of a joint summit with the Mexican and Canadian leaders.

One former DEA official said that if the alleged trafficker was extradited to the United States, he could provide crucial intelligence on fentanyl trafficking. But if he remains in Mexico “he’ll continue with his business” even behind bars, the ex-agent predicted, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that Mexico would study an extradition request, but that it wouldn’t occur “today or tomorrow or the day after.” He noted that Guzmán also faced charges in Mexico, where fentanyl has fueled violence in border cities such as Tijuana, which saw more than 1,900 homicides last year.

It was not immediately clear if U.S. intelligence played a key role in finding Guzmán – as it often has in high-profile takedowns. Sandoval said the arrest was the culmination of a six-month reconnaissance operation by Mexican authorities.

About 900 army soldiers, national guard troops and state police took part in the arrest, the outlet Reforma reported, sparking violence throughout Culiacán. A video circulating on social media shows a helicopter gunship opening fire on a home, the bullets streaking through the dark predawn sky.

Guzmán was detained after national guard forces stopped an armored convoy in Jesús María, a hamlet on the northern edge of Culiacán, military officials said. As the troops checked the vehicles, they came under fire, the officials said. They managed to identify Guzmán as one of the occupants of the vehicles.

Moments after they arrested him, criminal groups launched a counterattack, throwing up roadblocks and engaging in shootouts with authorities in 19 parts of Culiacán, officials said. Attackers set cars and buses ablaze. Passengers on an Aeromexico flight set to depart for Mexico City cowered in the aisles as the aircraft came under fire, according to a video shot by a passenger. No passenger was wounded.

The airports in Culiacán and the coastal beach town of Mazatlán, 135 miles south of the capital, shut down because of security concerns. Schools closed throughout Sinaloa.

A reporter in the Sinaloan capital, Marcos Vizcarra, tweeted at one point that he was trapped in a hotel besieged by gunmen. “They are threatening clients, ordering them to hand over their car keys,” he tweeted. “There are cries and screams.” He later arrived home safely.

Two Mexican troops were killed, and 18 people, most of them security forces, were wounded, authorities said. Amid the violence, the Mexican air force whisked Guzmán out of Culiacán, to Mexico City.

The violence was reminiscent of Oct. 17, 2019 – “Black Thursday” – when the Mexican army and national guard tried to arrest Guzmán the first time. The operation hit a snag when the troops realized they didn’t have a search warrant. As they waited for it to arrive, hundreds of cartel gunmen poured into the city firing high-powered weapons and setting vehicles ablaze. As chaos spread and gunmen threatened the families of military officers, López Obrador decided to release the alleged trafficker.

Critics assailed the president, already under fire for his security policies. The leftist López Obrador had long been a harsh critic of the U.S.-backed military campaign to seize drug kingpins, advocating instead for social programs to lure youths away from organized crime. His government claims the policy has reversed a steep increase in homicides, although violence remains near historic levels.

One DEA agent said Thursday’s detention of Guzmán could cause some slowdown in shipments of fentanyl and meth to the United States as the cartel recalibrated. But for a more sustained impact, “we’d have to take down the others who remain” part of the Sinaloa organization, said the agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the record. They allegedly include several of Guzmán’s relatives.

The arrest “only has an effect if it is done as part of a broader concerted effort, in the case of narcotics trafficking, to go after the second- and third-tier people in the organization, and the people outside in the legitimate world” who launder money, said John Feeley, a former senior U.S. diplomat in Mexico.