CULIACAN, Mexico — They were out there somewhere. Everyone knew the Sinaloa Cartel members dominated this northwestern Mexico city. The gang once led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman had influenced Culiacan’s politics and businesses for decades.
After several hours, the besieged government forces released Ovidio Guzman, who was wanted on U.S. federal drug-trafficking charges.
“We always knew they [traffickers] fought and killed each other. But there was never an attack on the civilian population,” said Alicia Guzman, 52, who runs a candy store near a traffic crossing blocked by the gunmen. She and her family scrambled to their nearby home when the cartel members roared up, and cowered inside for hours.
The offensive in Culiacan has sparked intense criticism of the crime-fighting strategy of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And it has exposed one of the country’s foremost problems: the government’s slipping control over parts of the territory.
There are an increasing number of areas “where you effectively have a state presence, but under negotiated terms with whoever runs the show locally,” said Falko Ernst, the senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group.
The Culiacan assault, captured on cellphone videos that zipped around social media, “visualizes it very forcefully,” he said.
Thursday afternoon’s attack came on the heels of several incidents highlighting the ability of organized-crime groups to challenge the government. On Monday, gunmen ambushed a convoy of state police in the western state of Michoacan, killing 14. Last month, the Northeast Cartel ordered gas stations in the border city of Nuevo Laredo to deny service to police or military vehicles, leaving them desperate for fuel.
But never had Mexicans seen a city of nearly 1 million people openly seized by a cartel — forcing the cancellation of school classes, the closure of the airport and the postponement of a professional soccer game.
“It was a political defeat, a security defeat, and a defeat of perception — of the way Mexicans view their own government,” said Gustavo Mohar, a former top security official who is now a consultant.
López Obrador took office last December vowing to depart from previous governments’ reliance on the military to fight organized-crime groups, a strategy blamed for tens of thousands of deaths. He promised to invest in social programs addressing the root causes of violence, such as poverty and unemployment.
“Hugs not bullets,” was his phrase.
But the leftist quickly pivoted and created a national guard, a sort of militarized police. His government has also continued to work closely with U.S. authorities on anti-narcotics operations, and attempted to detain organized-crime leaders.
Ricardo Márquez, another former senior Mexican security official, said the government’s actions had generated incentives for the violence to continue.
“The fact that they first say they’re not going to go against organized crime, and then go after it and fail, is a double incentive for these groups,” he said.
López Obrador defended the decision to release the suspect, saying it was taken “to protect citizens. You cannot fight fire with fire.”
In Culiacan, many residents appeared supportive of his decision.
“We don’t know what kind of massacre would have happened” if the suspected drug trafficker wasn’t released, said Guzman, the shop owner. (She is not related to Ovidio Guzman.)
Culiacan is a vivid example of a city where the government’s control has eroded over time. It is the storied heart of Mexico’s drug-trafficking industry, the capital of a state where marijuana and poppy grow in abundance and characters such as El Chapo have long been folk heroes. The former head of the Sinaloa Cartel is serving a life sentence in the United States after being convicted in February of drug trafficking and other charges.
But his organization remains among the most powerful in Mexico, with his sons playing key roles in its management, officials say.
Culiacan doesn’t look, on the face of it, like a city controlled by organized crime. The gunmen who carried out Thursday’s attack have vanished. Traffic is flowing along the endless avenues packed with small shops and restaurants.
But locals see the signs of the narcos’ presence everywhere: the gas stations run by one notorious trafficker, the empty office buildings suspected of being money-laundering vehicles, the baseball caps emblazoned with 701 — El Chapo’s number on the Forbes list of billionaires a decade ago.
The poorest residents live in shacks on dirt roads. The wealthiest live in La Primavera, a city-within-a-city featuring an artificial lake and golf courses, closed off to most Culiacan residents by private guards. It’s hardly surprising that residents are lured by the seemingly easy money of drug trafficking.
Along with that wealth, though, comes violence. Shootouts involving cartel members are not uncommon.
“There have been manifestations of their muscle, the force they have, but it never got to these levels,” said Oscar Loza, a human rights activist. “The blockades were military style. They took the city by assault.”
If some city residents approved of López Obrador’s decision to free Ovidio Guzman, others were indignant.
“Delinquents shouldn’t have power. How is it possible they do whatever they want?” asked Lourdes Martínez, 49, who works in a pharmacy near the crossing blocked by the gunmen.
Still, she acknowledged that the cartel members were part of the social fabric, sometimes more effective at resolving problems than authorities. For example, if your car is stolen, it is more likely you would get it back by contacting cartel members through an acquaintance than by waiting for the police to crack the case, she said.
“The cartel controls the city,” she added.
Some security experts said, however, that Thursday’s violence shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the government was overpowered by organized-crime groups. Senior officials have acknowledged serious flaws in the operation, saying it was carried out by lower-level personnel without informing their superiors.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, said the government failed to sufficiently plan or have enough personnel on hand for the operation.
“But it’s not been overtaken in terms of its capacity to fight,” he said. “The point is that the state hasn’t organized itself to effectively confront criminal groups. This was an improvised operation, planned poorly and executed terribly.”
Gabriela Martínez and Kevin Sieff in Mexico City and Marcos Vizcarra in Culiacán contributed to this report.