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A new behind-the-scenes video shows how badly Mexico blundered in its failed effort to arrest El Chapo’s son

The Mexican government released video of the moment authorities captured Ovidio Guzman, El Chapo's son, in Culiacán Oct. 17 before he was released hours later. (Video: The Washington Post)
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MEXICO CITY — The video shows the raid before it fell apart: Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of the notorious former Sinaloa cartel leader El Chapo, surrounded by security personnel pointing guns at his head.

The Mexican government released the clip Wednesday not to boast about its conquest, but to explain how the Oct. 17 operation in the city of Culiacán failed, even as it provided a cinematic glimpse into its earliest moments.

In the opening images, uniformed men surround a white building. Gunfire can be heard in the background. A woman walks out, frantic.

“Relax, relax, show us your hands,” says one of the officers.

Then a young man in a button-down shirt and black baseball cap walks out, his hands in the air. Many Mexicans would have recognized him immediately: Ovidio Guzmán López, a son of notorious drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. He had been indicted on a charge of drug trafficking in the United States months earlier.

He’s told to put his hands on a wall, but then things quickly get strange. Guzmán is asked to make a phone call.

“Tell them to stop everything,” says an officer.

The officer is referring to the chaos that had consumed Culiacan as Guzmán was detained. The Sinaloa cartel, which has enormous power across the northwestern city, deployed like a military division that emerged from the ether to kidnap security personnel and burn buses.

The failed arrest of El Chapo’s son turned a Mexican city into an urban war zone

Mexican security officials quickly realized they were being overpowered. They needed Guzmán to call off his men. That was the idea behind the phone call he is seen making in the video.

“Stop everything, stop everything. I turned myself in,” Guzmán says on the phone. “I don’t want them to make a mess.”

The guns were still pointed at him. That’s where the video released at the morning news conference cuts off.

Not long after the video was shot, the cartel continued to assert control of the city. The government released separate videos of armed men with rifles driving around Culiacan. 

“They were putting civilians at risk,” Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval said at the morning news conference. 

To resolve the situation, security forces released Guzmán back to the cartel — a deeply controversial peace offering intended to put an end to the day’s violence. Guzmán had been held for around three hours.

Gun battle over El Chapo’s son highlights growing challenges to Mexican government control

Officials attempted again Wednesday to justify his release. 

The security personnel that participated in the operation would have defeated the cartel in a “death match,” but it would have caused significant bloodshed, said Alfonso Durazo, Mexico’s secretary of public security.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ran for office on promises to address the root causes of organized crime, a strategy he has called “abrazos, no balazos” — hugs, not bullets. But violence has soared since he took office in December.

Durazo argued that the botched operation in Culiacan should not be interpreted as proof that the government’s broader security mission has failed.

“In terms of security, it is not wise to overstate the circumstances,” he said. “A tactical stumbling block does not invalidate the security strategy as a whole.”

Security analysts and former officials came away with a different impression. They saw an up-close look at the incompetence of those who planned the operation.

Ricardo Marquez, a former senior security official, said the new information being released by the Mexican government showed it didn’t use many of the resources it had available — including helicopters and about 3,200 military and National Guard forces in the region. 

“It’s incredible they failed to show the Mexican government’s capability,” he said.

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