MEXICO CITY — It was the most important operation against organized crime in years. At almost every step, it went awry.

On Thursday afternoon in the northwestern city of Culiacán, soldiers and police arrived in a convoy at the home where Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of former drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, was staying, a sprawling compound behind 15-foot concrete walls. 

The younger Guzmán was a leading figure in the Sinaloa Cartel, which his father had built from Culiacán into one of the world’s most powerful criminal organizations until his arrest in 2016. Ovidio Guzmán was seen as an heir apparent — in February he’d been indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for “knowingly, intentionally, and willfully” distributing drugs to be exported into the United States. 

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But as Mexican security officials crept closer to Guzmán on Thursday, they were informed that they did not yet have an arrest warrant for him. They needed to wait, according to Security Minister Alfonso Durazo — a remarkable misstep that quickly turned the city of Culiacán into an urban war zone and ultimately led to the release of one of Mexico’s most infamous drug traffickers.

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The bungled operation in Culiacán offered vivid proof that in parts of Mexico, the government can be outmanned, outgunned and outsmarted by drug cartels. It marked one of the most embarrassing moments of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidency, forcing the country’s leader to explain why his government returned Guzman to the Sinaloa Cartel: “We can’t value the capture of a criminal more than the lives of people,” he said at a Friday news conference.

The failed operation is also certain to drive a wedge between the United States and Mexico on counternarcotics and security strategy. Guzmán’s arrest was meant as a first step toward extradition to the United States, López Obrador said.

As soon as Mexican security forces arrived at the home, the Sinaloa cartel mobilized, dispatching convoys of gunmen in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, seizing main roads and highways. At least 49 prisoners escaped from detention. Meanwhile, the Mexican soldiers and police had no backup, according to Durazo. 

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Videos quickly emerged of gun battles across the city and incinerated cars sending plumes of smoke into the sky. One video appeared to capture the prison break. Another showed schoolchildren taking cover behind a car. Another showed a confrontation between a truckload of soldiers and cartel members, who vastly outnumbered them.

Eight soldiers were detained. At least eight people were killed. A helicopter took gunfire. 

Thousands of Mexicans watched the videos in real-time.

“The [cartel] deployed across the city,” López Obrador said at the news conference, explaining the threat posed by the cartel and the “many citizens at risk.”

Top security officials “decided to protect the lives of people, and I was in support of that,” he said.

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By evening, not long after a mug shot of Guzmán circulated online, news spread that he had been released back to the cartel. Three other cartel members were detained and then released along with Guzmán, part of a “political deal,” according to a senior military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter.

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As security has worsened across Mexico, with homicides hitting record levels this year, many have waited for López Obrador to articulate a strategy to address the problem. During his campaign last year, his plans mostly consisted of rhetorical flourishes: “hugs, not bullets” and “you can’t fight violence with violence.”

Thursday’s disaster was, for many Mexicans, the most vivid distillation of López Obrador’s security policy, which still includes high-level targeted operations, but also entails a willingness to concede to a criminal organization to avoid violent retaliation. 

“It is a defeat of the country. It is a defeat of the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It is a defeat of the very dubious strategy of pacification that he defends,” wrote columnist Carlos Loret de Mola in El Universal. 

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Some former U.S. officials said they were disappointed by the operation’s failure, but suggested that the attempted capture was more than Mexican security forces would have attempted in Sinaloa until recently.

“It was a big bite. To be in the heart of Sinaloa grabbing someone knowing there are a hundred guys just watching him,” said Carl Pike, the former assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Special Operations Division for the Americas. “Obviously they bit off more than they could chew, but a few years ago they wouldn’t have even gone into the city.”

Even Mexico’s senior defense officials recognized how badly the government’s plans had gone. Durazo called the raid a “failed operation.”

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“If this had been planned differently, perhaps we would have had devoted more air support,” Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval said at the news conference.

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The sting of the government’s failure was felt acutely by residents in Culiacán, who awoke Friday to a city that felt abandoned, with stores shuttered and people avoiding the streets. Sonia, 40, was in the middle of a main street Thursday when a shootout occurred. She and her mother ran into a nearby store, where people lay on the floor and cried. 

“We always knew that criminal groups had more and better weapons than the government,” she said, declining to give her last name out of fear for her own security. “But we have never seen a manifestation of that superiority like this before. The government cannot protect us.”

The Sinaloa cartel’s show of force — and the government’s concession — is all the more surprising because the cartel was widely seen as declining in influence. The Jalisco New Generation cartel is largely considered ascendant, seizing territory across much of the country, and driving much of the violence that has emerged under the López Obrador presidency.

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Meanwhile, the Sinaloa cartel had been struggling internally with the impact of El Chapo’s arrest, and decisions of who ought to take his place.

Since El Chapo’s capture, the Sinaloa cartel has been led primarily by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and El Chapo’s sons Jesús Alfredo Guzmán and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán.

During El Chapo’s trial in New York this year, prosecutors said the sons had played a role in facilitating their father’s escape in 2015 from a maximum-security prison in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico.

El Mayo has long remained an elusive figure; unlike El Chapo, he has stayed largely out of the spotlight. There have been reported tensions between the leader and the two Guzmán sons in recent months.

Drugs continue to flow into the United States unabated. The Sinaloa cartel has ramped up its production of methamphetamines and fentanyl. 

Gabriela Martinez and Steve Fisher contributed to this report.

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