EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Mexico’s release last week of a drug cartel figure amid widespread violence in Sinaloa state has weakened that country’s fight against organized crime, a U.S. analyst says.
Criminal organizations that witnessed the release of Ovidio Guzman — the son of jailed Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — after henchmen unleashed machine-gun fire and torched vehicles in the state capital of Culiacan could now be crafting their own guerrilla response, should their leaders be captured.
And the Mexican government may not have the luxury of just backing off from such well-armed and bold criminal groups, as it faces relentless pressure from the United States to arrest and extradite drug kingpins, says Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
“I think one of the greatest risks that the Mexican government took when it made the decision to release Chapo’s son was to send the wrong message to the various cartels … which may themselves prepare a contingency plan that includes a rapid urban-warfare type of reaction to defend their leaders,” Payan said.
The fighting in the aftermath of an army unit’s capture of Ovidio Guzman last Thursday left at least nine people dead, several injured and cars and business burning. As thugs atop vehicles with mounted machine guns took control of the city, the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador released Guzman.
“It is a bad precedent that sends the message that the Mexican government is more than willing to cave in if (the cartels) show a certain degree of force, especially in an urban setting where many lives are at stake and people may get caught in the crossfire,” Payan said.
In addition to the Sinaloa cartel, major Mexican drug-trafficking organizations that control a myriad of regional criminal gangs include the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, Cartel del Golfo and Gente Nueva (formerly, the Zetas). The Sinaloa cartel remains a dominant presence in Chihuahua, although the Jalisco cartel is making strides nationwide, displacing hundreds of families from their homes in the process.
Ovidio Guzman’s release exposed the Lopez Obrador administration’s shortcomings against organized crime.
“They were very ill-prepared to carry out these kinds of operations; they were sloppy and completely unprepared for the response. They underestimated the consequences and sent the wrong message to the cartels,” Payan said. “The Mexican government has weakened its hand against organized crime.”
Though initially supportive of Lopez Obrador after Thursday’s debacle, the Trump administration is likely to keep up the pressure on Mexico to arrest and extradite cartel leaders.
“The U.S. has, for a very long time, favored dismantling the cartels through the ‘kingpin strategy,’ meaning going after the leaders of criminal organizations and extraditing them,” Payan said. “So (Mexico) is now caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Drug violence continues to displace Mexicans
Hundreds of Mexican families continue to camp out at the foot of the bridges leading from Juarez, Mexico to El Paso, Texas awaiting a chance to apply for asylum in the United States.
Juarez officials say many of those families are fleeing drug violence in the West-Central states of Michoacan, Jalisco and Guerrero, as well as Central states like Zacatecas and Durango whose highway network to the U.S. border is now a cartel battleground.
Payan said the violence in Sinaloa isn’t likely to spark more of this migration — for now. “Sinaloans are interesting people. They have been living with (drug) violence for a long time and we don’t see an influx of migrants (from there),” he said.
However, he said during a recent trip to Juarez he was able to see families from other states trying to seek asylum in the U.S.
“We are seeing an increase of Mexican migrants probably learning from the experiences of other nationalities who are transmigrating that they can get to the U.S. Mexico border and apply for asylum,” Payan said. “The number of Mexicans migrating is higher than it has been in a long time, though it’s still not higher than other nationalities.”
Dirving Garcia Gutierrez, director of the Migrant Assistance Center in Juarez, said there are now Mexican citizens camped at all three major bridges leading to El Paso.
Juarez authorities since late last year set up a mechanism for the orderly transit of Cubans, Central Americans and others to the American ports of entry to present their asylum claims. Juarez authorities, however, have been taking a hands-off approach with the Mexicans, for they don’t want to be perceived as impeding their free transit through their own country.