MEXICO — Mexican security forces engaged in a prolonged shootout with heavily armed suspected cartel members in Sinaloa state Thursday, in an operation that ensnared a son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Mexican federal troops had initially detained Ovidio Guzman Lopez, 28, in the northern city of Culiacan, in what Mexico’s State Security Secretary Cristoban Castanillo called a “federally-coordinated operation.”
But Security Minister Alfonso Durazo has told Reuters that he was later released, saying the decision was taken to protect lives.
Suspected members of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel appeared to overpower the security forces during the shootout, who later suspended operations.
According to CNN affiliate ADN40, armored vehicles with military-grade machinery exchanged heavy artillery against federal troops in Culiacan, in the heart of Sinaloa.
The shootout forced many residents to flee in panic, others remained locked in their homes while outside, troops engaged in intense gun battles throughout the day. Residents have been asked to stay inside and schools have been closed until further notice, officials said, according to ADN40.
Images on social media appeared to show the terror unleashed on the inhabitants of Culiacan. Plumes of black smoke billowed on the horizon while on the ground, mothers coddled their children while searching for cover behind parked cars.
Late Thursday Durazo said government operations in Culiacan had been suspended following a violent back and forth between federal entities and criminal groups.
Durazo said that law enforcement officers and members of the Mexican National Guard were conducting a routine patrol when they were attacked by people inside a home in the city at around 3:30 p.m. local time (4:30 p.m. ET).
The patrol unit fought back and took control of the house, finding four occupants inside. Authorities identified one of the occupants as Ovidio Guzman Lopez.
During the confrontation, other members of an organized criminal group arrived on scene, with more firepower than authorities. Violent attacks also erupted in different parts of the city creating “a situation of panic,” Durazo said.
With the “purpose of safeguarding the security and tranquility of the Culiacan society, the officials of the Cabinet of Security agreed to suspend said actions.”
Who is Ovidio Guzman Lopez?
Ovidio Guzman Lopez is the son of Guzman and his second wife, Griselda Lopez. He is believed to have a large role in the Sinaloa cartel, according to the US Treasury Department.
In February, Ovidio Guzman Lopez was charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs to be imported into the US, along with his brother Joaquin Guzman Lopez, 34, by the US Department of Justice.
Prosecutors said that from April 2008 through April 2018, the brothers conspired to distribute cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine from Mexico and other places to be imported into the US.
In July, their father — the once-powerful leader of the Sinaloa cartel — was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in the US.
Guzman was convicted in February on 10 federal charges, including murder conspiracies, running a continuing criminal enterprise and other drug-related charges.
In 2015 he dramatically escaped from prison, riding on a motorcycle through a tunnel that had been dug to his cell at the Altiplano maximum security federal prison.
Ray Donovan, the DEA special agent who spearheaded the 22-agency effort that led to Guzman’s capture, told CNN in February that the Sinaloa cartel still supplies the vast majority of US drug markets.
“In fact, Chapo’s sons are now risen through the ranks of the Sinaloa cartel and taken over Chapo’s end of the organization,” he said.