Shocked by cartel firefight, Mexico's Culiacan seeks return to normality

By David Alire Garcia and Daina Beth Solomon
Police officer pours water on the burnt wreckage of a truck a day after cartel gunmen clashed with federal forces in Culiacan

By David Alire Garcia and Daina Beth Solomon

CULIACAN, Mexico/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Stunned residents of the Mexican city of Culiacan gingerly ventured back into the streets on Friday as police cleared away shell casings and scorched cars from an eruption of gangland violence on the home turf of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel.

Scores of cartel henchmen swarmed parts of the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa on Thursday when authorities briefly detained a son of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman at a house in an area packed with hotels, shops and restaurants.

Wielding assault rifles, torching cars and blocking roads at various locations across town, the cartel footsoldiers unleashed a show of firepower that sent people scurrying for cover and prompted security forces to free the son, Ovidio Guzman.


(Graphic: Bungled arrest of kingpin's son, click https://graphics.reuters.com/MEXICO-VIOLENCE/0100B2J91V6/index.html)


A few locals attempted a return to normal life on Friday even though schools remained closed, businesses shut behind metal grates and some roads blocked by charred vehicles, Reuters images showed.

"I saw scenes that I've only seen in war movies, cars in the street on fire, cars pulled over and abandoned," said Tomas Guevara, a security expert who has lived for more than 30 years in the city, which, while inured to gangland strife is unused to such chaos. "I've never seen anything like it."

Even people taking cover behind the towering concrete walls of Culiacan's main soccer stadium did not feel safe, panicked by the relentless patter of gunfire during the raid for the younger Guzman in the city's Tres Rios area, a Reuters witness said.

Dozens took refuge in locker rooms and dropped to the floor. Two men hid behind seats. Some stayed for hours as gunmen fired round after round from high-caliber assault rifles.

"Where are you? I'm in Tres Rios, I'm hiding," a man said into his phone, checking frantically for news of his family.

Children huddled with mothers and families. Some had been forced by two armed men off a large white bus that was set on fire to block a road, sending black smoke spewing skywards.

A police officer called his superiors to report that gunmen had removed him from his patrol car and torched it. Take off your uniform and blend in with civilians, his bosses told him.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended his decision to free the younger Guzman, saying it saved lives. Still, authorities had reports of at least eight people killed.


PARALYSIS

Nestled between fertile coastal strips that grow tomatoes for U.S. supermarkets, and mountain ranges home to marijuana and opium-growing outlaws, Culiacan lives a double life in the Sinaloa Cartel's heartland.

Best known as home to legendary cartel bosses, the city also thrives as a regional economic hub where drug lords and their families live side by side with executives from agriculture businesses and other firms such as national retailer Coppel.

One of Mexico's most powerful gangs, the Sinaloa Cartel has kept a firm grip on the local drug trade despite the extradition of "El Chapo" to the United States in 2017, and cartel business has proceeded unabated under the leadership of his sons and their associates, security experts say.

Though Culiacan has been roiled by spectacular raids such as the 2008 capture of a cousin of El Chapo and five other cartel members, Thursday's events went further.

"I've never seen a shootout paralyze all of Culiacan," said a 59-year-old businessman who has always lived in the city, raising his voice over the drone of helicopters circling above. He asked that his name not be used due to safety concerns.

"It's more or less normal to hear gunfire at night and early morning," he added. "But like yesterday, never."

Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, was having lunch in Culiacan when the shooting erupted. Running to a nearby office for safety, he watched from the third floor as traffic melted away and was replaced by menacing convoys of cartel trucks.

By Friday afternoon, even as businesses began to reopen, a sense of unease still hung over Culiacan, Hootsen said.

"Some people in Mexico are wondering if the government has any kind of control over the situation," he said. "I'm not sure they do."


(Reporting by David Alire Garcia in Culiacan, Lizbeth Diaz and Miguel Angel Gutierrez in Mexico City; Additional reporting and writing by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Editing by Dave Graham and Daniel Wallis)