The arrest of a drug kingpin’s son triggered extreme violence, which saw armed men unleash terror across the city.
The residents of the Mexican city of Culiacan ran for cover, hiding out in their homes and cars on Thursday as members of the violent Sinaloa Cartel took over the streets with automatic guns and sniper rifles in a brazen show of power.
The violence was triggered by a police raid on a house where Ovidio Guzman, one of the sons of notorious jailed drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka El Chapo, was hiding along with some associates.
Reports suggest Ovidio was released soon after his arrest as authorities tried to contain the backlash, which saw armed men in masks and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns patrolling the streets.
But his release wasn’t enough to stop the worst violence Culiacan has seen in a decade.
Videos and pictures shared on Twitter showed black plumes rising over the historic city and cartel members overwhelming security forces.
Mexican soldiers being overthrown by #Sinaloa cartel members at a toll booth in #Culiacán during today's shootouts. Soldiers had to shake hands with them. Who's really in charge in Mexico? pic.twitter.com/kXzHzbpj1y— David Wolf (@DavidWolf777) October 18, 2019
The situation has once again brought Mexico’s long-running battle against drug cartels into focus and raised questions about the ability of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to deal with the crisis, one of his election promises.
An unending cycle of violence
It remains unclear how many people have been killed in the latest flare-up in Culiacan but if history is any guide then deaths are inevitable.
Since 2006, when an operation was launched against the cartels, more than 150,000 civilians, gang members and government officials have been murdered in incidents related to organised crime, which often manifests itself in grisly beheadings and public hangings, according to a US Congressional Research Center report.
To all those people who love to ask me about growing up in Culiacan. Who binge-watch all those narco shows and romanticize the capos. This is the reality of it. What real people in the real world have to endure. #Culiacan #PrayForCuliacan pic.twitter.com/UIvDktcru9— Natalia Sandoval (@curiousnats) October 18, 2019
Last year there were more than 33,000 homicides and a journalist was killed almost every month in 2017 and 2018.
Just this week, 13 police officers were shot dead, allegedly by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), in the state of Michoacan.
Mexicans were shocked in 2014 when CJNG kidnapped and later killed 43 college students in an apparent bid to strike fear among the locals.
Dozens of mayors, deputy mayors and government officials have been assassinated by various cartels in recent years as they fight over turf, which includes the business of extortion and kidnappings.
Successive Mexican governments have faced allegations that their officials take bribes from cartels which in some cases rely on local police to run their operations.
Who is the Sinaloa Cartel?
The Sinaloa Cartel, led by El Chapo, emerged in the 1980s. For a decade it was one of many gangs that vied to grab a share of the illicit drug trade, which swelled the narcotics supply across the border in the United States.
El Chapo then fought other gangs such as the Juarez and Tijuana cartels in the 2000s, a fight that took more than a hundred thousand lives, writes Don Winslow in Esquire magazine.
The Sinaloa Cartel is blamed for perpetuating the US heroin epidemic - a business so lucrative that it took El Chapo’s worth to more than a billion dollars and helped earn him a place on the Forbes list of the world’s richest men.
He’s famous for escaping a maximum-security Mexican prison in 2015 via a mile-long underground tunnel, and that’s not the only time he’s made an escape. He was captured a few months later and subsequently extradited to the US where he’s facing life imprisonment.