Mexico has endured 13 years of a bloody and painful conflict that has taken the lives of 200,000 people and seen the disappearance of at least 30,000 more. The country’s drug war has perplexed two consecutive Mexican presidents: Felipe Calderón, who recklessly began the push against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels, and Enrique Peña Nieto, whose corruption-riddled administration made the problem worse. Current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised a new strategy: “hugs, not bullets,” a unilateral surrender of the government’s legitimate use of force. Despite record-high violence, López Obrador insisted he would not engage in the same policy of confrontation favored by his predecessors. “We don’t want war,” he has said.

On Thursday, he proved just how much he is willing to concede. The story does not bode well for Mexico.

At around 3:30 p.m., violence erupted in Culiacán, the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa. According to the government’s account — laid out hours later in a sloppy and amateurish video by Mexico’s security minister, Alfonso Durazo — a squad of 30 soldiers from the newly minted National Guard came under fire while on patrol along the “Tres Ríos” residential area. When a number of men shot at the group from a nearby building, Mexican armed forces responded in turn and took control of the residence. Inside, they found four assailants.

One of them was eventually identified as Ovidio Guzmán López, the 29-year-old son of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the powerful leader of the Sinaloa cartel now serving multiple life sentences in Colorado. A suspected drug lord in his own right, the younger Guzmán had recently been indicted, along with his older brother Joaquín, on charges of drug trafficking by U.S. authorities. Though details are still hazy, Mexican soldiers proceeded to hold him. Someone took a picture of the detainee, an informal mugshot in which he looks arrogantly into the camera.

Perhaps he knew what was coming.

In the government’s initial version of events, numerous criminal units soon “surrounded the residence, showing superior firepower” to that of the smaller contingent of Mexican armed forces. As this happened, the city of Culiacán turned into a war zone. It hadn’t taken long for news of Guzmán’s predicament to reach other members of the Sinaloa cartel. A caravan of pickups and trucks, some of them outfitted with war-like contraptions with high-caliber weapons at the ready, began firing thousands of rounds against the authorities. Cartel members set up roadblocks by setting vehicles on fire to prevent the removal of Guzmán from the city. Long plumes of smoke blurred the Culiacán skyline.

As the fighting escalated, people sought refuge. Parents ordered their children, many of whom had just finished school, to exit their cars and lay down on the road. Criminals set up sniper positions on local sidewalks, scouting from corners in broad daylight, forcing terrified civilians to flee for their lives. At least 30 inmates were broken out of a local jail. “The situation turned to panic,” explained Durazo.

After almost two hours of mayhem, news of the violence in Sinaloa, and of Guzman’s possible arrest, spread like wildfire on Mexican social media. Journalist Denise Maerker, who anchors the country’s main television newscast, posted Guzmán’s mugshot. “This is the picture of Ovidio Guzmán López . . . as he was presented to the authorities,” she tweeted. Other outlets began published stories on Guzman’s “apprehension.” On his way to a previously scheduled visit to the state of Oaxaca, President López Obrador refused to share details of what had happened in Culiacán, but said his security cabinet would soon have some news. “Let’s wait,” he smirked.

Unbeknownst to the public, though, López Obrador was facing a dilemma of historic proportions. Ill-equipped for the severity of the violence in the city, and apparently under direct threat from the sicario militia that had moved in to free Guzmán, the armed forces and the government faced a stark choice: It could either make the unprecedented decision to give in to the cartel’s terrorist blackmail and comply with its demands to hand over Guzmán, or find a way to bring him in.

In an astonishing decision that will have far-reaching consequences for both Mexico’s long struggle against organized crime and the government itself, López Obrador and his inner circle chose the former. “With the purpose of safeguarding the integrity and safety of Culiacán’s society,” Durazo said in the video, “security cabinet officials decided to suspend the operation.”

With support from the president, Mexican officials let Guzmán go.

On Friday, during his daily press conference, López Obrador tried to justify the decision to free Guzmán. “We decided to protect the lives of the people and I agreed. The situation had become difficult,” he said. López Obrador then insisted his approach to Mexico’s growing violence and bloodshed will rely on persuasion. “The previous strategy turned the country into a graveyard,” he said. “We don’t want that. Nothing through the use of force. We will try reasoning.”

López Obrador can try to spin what happened all he wants, but Culiacán has set a precedent. If Calderón and Peña Nieto relied solely on enforcement, López Obrador has chosen to give up the legitimate power of the state. On Thursday, after being overrun and coerced by a criminal organization that has besieged the country for years and turned one of Mexico’s biggest cities into a battleground, the Mexican government capitulated. Cartels will surely take notice.

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