Why the arrest of El Chapo's son caused a rampage of violence in a Mexican city

A man passes by a burned truck during an operation to arrest the son of Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, Ovidio Guzman, in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, Mexico, on Thursday. The pre-dawn operation Thursday set off gunfights and roadblocks across the western state’s capital.  (Juan Carlos Cruz/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
A man passes by a burned truck during an operation to arrest the son of Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, Ovidio Guzman, in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, Mexico, on Thursday. The pre-dawn operation Thursday set off gunfights and roadblocks across the western state’s capital. (Juan Carlos Cruz/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

The arrest of Ovidio Guzman, the son of jailed drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, has sparked a rampage of violence in the northwestern Mexican city of Culiacan, led by members of his Sinaloa drug cartel.

Gunfire has erupted, vehicles have been torched and roads blocked while cartel members clash with security forces. So far, at least 10 military personnel and 19 suspected members of the Sinaloa drug cartel have been killed.

The violence has prompted government authorities to warn residents to stay indoors. The Culiacan and Mazatlan airports have been closed and all flights had been suspended at the Los Mochis airport until further notice, according to Canada's Global Affairs. The Canadian government is urging Canadians in Mexico's Sinaloa state to limit their movements and to shelter in place.

CBC News explains what's causing the violence, and how it's impacting Canadians travelling in the area.

Where is the violence taking place?

The violence is centred in northwestern Mexico, in the state of Sinaloa — specifically the state capital of Culiacan. This is about 1,200 kilometres northwest of Mexico City, and the home base of the Sinaloa cartel.

How is the violence affecting Canadians in Mexico?

Canadians vacationing in resorts in that area say they've been sheltering inside their hotels until the violence subsides.

On Thursday afternoon, Global Affairs Canada warned Canadians in Sinaloa to take extra care, especially in the cities of Culiacan, Mazatlan, Los Mochis and Guasave, and told Canadians to avoid non-essential travel in those areas.

WATCH | How Canadians are managing the violence in Mexico:

Patrick Hayden, a Canadian who is vacationing in Mazatlan, told CBC News that he was bit concerned — mostly because of reports of trouble at the nearby airport, where he had been scheduled to fly out on Friday.

"Also, where I'm staying is a very popular tourist destination and could be that we might be a target, but that doesn't look like that right now," he said.

"Today there is a lot of frustration and concern," about being able to leave, he said. "But at this point we mostly recognize that it's really out of our hands, so we're just going to have to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best."

Who is Ovidio Guzman?

Guzman, 32, who goes by the nickname "The Mouse," is the oldest son of El Chapo — Mexico's most notorious drug lord. Guzman and his brothers emerged as leaders of one of the four factions in the cartel following their father's arrest.

Juan Carlos Ayala, a Culiacan resident and Sinaloa University professor who studies the sociology of drug trafficking, told the Associated Press that Guzman was an obvious target since at least 2019.

Cepropie/The Associated Press
Cepropie/The Associated Press

"Ovidio's fate had been decided. Moreover, he was identified as the biggest trafficker of fentanyl and the most visible Chapos leader."

According to the U.S. and Mexican governments, Guzman had assumed a growing role among his brothers in carrying on their father's business.

In December 2021, the State Department announced a $5 million US reward for information leading to the arrest of conviction of Guzman, who has been charged in the U.S. with conspiracy to traffic cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States.

The State Department said Guzman oversees methamphetamine labs in Sinaloa responsible for producing 3,000 to 5,000 pounds (1,360 to 2,268 kilograms) of the drug per month.

He is currently being held in a Mexico City maximum security federal prison.

His father is serving a life-plus-30-years sentence at a Colorado Supermax security prison for a series of drug-related charges.

Wasn't Ovidio Guzman arrested before?

Guzman was detained in 2019 but was quickly released by orders of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador after hundreds of cartel henchmen overwhelmed security forces in Culiacan.

Obrador later acknowledged he released Guzman to end the violent retribution.

Why has the cartel reacted this way?

Such a show of force is not new in Mexico, said Angélica Durán-Martínez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. She is also an expert in political and criminal violence, drug trade and crime in Latin American politics.

"That's associated partially with all the changes the political and criminal landscape of Mexico has experienced over the past decade and a half," she said. "[It's] basically a situation of political fragmentation and criminal fragmentation which varies across the states. But that creates a situation where criminal actors have become more blatant in their power."

Fernando Llano/The Associated Press
Fernando Llano/The Associated Press

Javier Osorio, an assistant professor at the school of government and public policy at the University of Arizona, who studies political and criminal violence in Latin American, said that around 20 years ago, cartels began acquiring high-powered military-grade weaponry.

That means they now have the capacity to fight back, "especially when the government strikes a very high target like this one. They will let the government know that they can fight," he said.

How powerful is the Sinaloa cartel?

While other cartels have fragmented and lost their leader, or even dismantled, the Sinaloa cartel has managed to survive despite a lot of government effort to dismantle them, Osorio said.

In terms of drug-related activities, they control the Sinaloa corridor, which has traditionally been an opium-producing region. But over the last five years, the cartel has focused more on producing fentanyl, Osario said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers the Sinaloa cartel, along with the the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) to be responsible for most of the fentanyl inside the United Sates.

WATCH | Canadian government warns travellers to limit movement:

Since the arrest of El Chapo, the Sinaloa cartel has been composed of four key factions, one that includes El Chapo's brother and another that includes his four sons, known collectively as Los Chapitos, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington.

Durán-Martínez said there are sectors of the population that support the Sinaloa cartel, "because they have received social support from them and that became more blatant in the past few years, like giving food or giving groceries to people or giving money or sponsoring parties."

But there are many people who are "absolutely tired" of the violence and of the reputation to their city and state from the cartel, and oppose their actions, she said.

What impact will his arrest have on the cartel?

When El Chapo was arrested, the cartel seemed to have a very clear succession plan in place, Osorio said.

"He was arrested and the cartel remains consolidated. They did not fragment like many other cartels when they lose their leadership," he said.

Reuters
Reuters

"If they will remain stable within and everybody stays loyal to the El Chapo legacy, then they're going to keep the cartel intact and without much infighting."

Durán-Martínez said it's difficult to predict what will happen next, as incarceration of a major criminal leader can potentially lead to more infighting inside the organization, and therefore, to more violence.

"I think we may see some instability in the short term. The organization is, I think, a little bit more unstable internally than it was in the past," she said.

"Whether that will lead to the dismantlement of the Sinaloa cartel or of criminal organizations in Sinaloa, I think the answer is no."