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The city of Culiacán, Sinaloa, erupted in violence Thursday afternoon amid a major Mexican military operation that led to the capture — and abrupt release — of at least one son of cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Two sources — including a U.S. law enforcement official — confirmed to VICE News that Chapo’s son Ovidio Guzmán was in Mexican military custody early in the afternoon. Another son, Iván Archivaldo Guzmán, may also have been captured, but his status remains unconfirmed and there are rumors he may have been killed in a battle with Mexican soldiers.
Alfonso Durazo, Mexico’s top public security official, issued a statement saying authorities encountered Ovidio Guzmán at a house in Culiacán in the afternoon, but were forced to retreat amid a shootout with cartel members. The statement acknowledged the ongoing violence in the city but made no mention of Iván Archivaldo. One Mexican news outlet reported that a lawyer for the Guzmán family also confirmed that Ovidio was freed.
A U.S. law enforcement official told VICE News: “believe the news.”
The Mexican government reportedly plans to hold a press conference at 6 a.m. local time on Friday to explain the situation.
Videos circulating on social media showed utter chaos in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa and a stronghold of the state’s namesake cartel. In the footage, what appear to be cartel gunmen are seen firing heavy weapons in the streets, apparently at military or police, while panicked civilians run. Mexican police and soldiers have reportedly blocked off highways into the city and many major streets, leaving the city on lockdown.
“The city's taken, the airport is paralyzed,” one Culiacán resident told VICE News, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of cartel reprisals. “We've never lived anything like this ever, and whoever says this is not new is lying.”
The resident said he was eating lunch near the state prosecutor’s office when gunfire first erupted around 4 p.m. local time this afternoon, a timeline that squares with other accounts and videos posted on social media. The civilian source said several people were wounded in the encounter, but Mexican government officials have not confirmed any injuries or deaths.
Several sources on the ground in Sinaloa have reported to VICE News that 39-year-old Iván Archivaldo Guzmán, El Chapo’s eldest son, may have also been targeted in the military operation, with rumors flying that he had either been killed or captured, with some claiming he too was briefly in custody but either escaped or was released.
One unverified video shared on Twitter purportedly showed a cartel radio handset with gunmen threatening to harm the families of Mexican soldiers unless Iván is released.
"Let him go, and go home in peace, nothing will happen to you,” one voice says on the recording. “If not, you're fucked"
Another voice then says, "Get to the families, to the families, if he's not back, fuck them."
Had Ovidio remained in Mexican custody, he would have potentially faced extradition to the United States to stand trial in the same Brooklyn courtroom where his dad was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year. Sources confirmed that a photo of Ovidio in custody — showing him with bushy black hair, a light blue collared shirt, and necklaces — was legitimate. Other similar images had also been circulating on Twitter. One source said Ovidio had suffered a minor head injury during the arrest, another said he was “completely fine.”
Listen to the VICE News podcast "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial" for free on Spotify.
Ovidio — one of at least 15 sons fathered by El Chapo — was indicted on drug trafficking charges on Feb. 21, just a week after his father was convicted of leading the Sinaloa cartel for over three decades, using brutal violence to build the organization into Mexico’s most powerful criminal group. In El Chapo’s absence, his sons — known as Los Chapitos or Los Menores — have taken over their father’s faction of the cartel, with Ovidio and Iván playing key roles.
A conflict has reportedly been brewing in recent months between El Chapo’s sons — known for their flashy lifestyles and brash attitudes — and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, the longtime co-leader of the Sinaloa cartel, who prefers to be more low key. And on a visit to Sinaloa last year, sources told VICE News that the sons had also been feuding with their uncle, Aureliano “El Guano” Guzmán, who controls the mountainous area around Chapo’s remote hometown, a key source of heroin and methamphetamine production.
Amid the mayhem this afternoon in Culiacán, city residents feared the worst about what could happen in the fallout from the latest developments. One message circulating on WhatsApp warned citizens to shelter in place because gunmen from across the region were gathering to fight for Chapo’s sons and their allies.
“There are armed people from all the municipalities of Sinaloa, people of Chihuahua, Durango and Guadalajara, [coming] to rescue the children of El Chapo and two more capos who are unknown,” the message said. “That is why the state government has not given information because they do not know what to be careful do not leave your house if you have nothing to do on the street.”
Miguel Fernandez Flores contributed reporting.
Cover: El Chapo's son Ovidio Guzmán in Mexican military police custody on Wednesday, October 17, 2019.