After troops arrested a son of the notorious drug lord known as El Chapo, cartel gunmen tried to free him, resulting in a series of gun battles and thousands of troops called into the fight.
Ten soldiers and 19 drug cartel members were killed and dozens of people were wounded in a series of gun battles surrounding the capture of the son of the notorious drug kingpin known as El Chapo, Mexican officials said on Friday.
Ovidio Guzmán López, a son of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, who is said to be a leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel that his father once headed, was arrested on Thursday in what the government described as a major blow to one of the country’s most notorious criminal organizations. But the scale and high cost of the operation were not made public until a day later, at a news conference led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
As cartel members shot at soldiers, including with .50-caliber machine guns, and set up roadblocks with flaming vehicles in an attempt to free the younger Mr. Guzmán, more than 3,500 troops became involved in the operation, returning fire on the ground and from aircraft, officials said.
In addition to the 29 men killed, 35 soldiers were wounded by gunfire and 21 suspected cartel members were arrested. The authorities did not say if anyone other than troops were wounded. They said the government seized six .50-caliber machine guns, four .50-caliber semiautomatic rifles, 26 other long guns, pistols and 53 vehicles including 26 that were armored, as well as quantities of fentanyl and cocaine.
“With these actions, the Army, the Air Force and the National Guard reaffirm the unwavering decision of the federal government to continue acting against organized crime,” said Luis Cresencio Sandoval González, the defense secretary.
The capture gives Mr. López Obrador a win just days before he is to play host to a summit meeting with President Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. And it at least partially cleanses the stain of a previous arrest of Mr. Guzmán, in 2019, when the authorities were forced to free him after being overpowered by cartel gunmen.
The operation on Thursday, officials said, reflected lessons learned from that experience, including the need for overwhelming numbers. Rather than in the cartel’s stronghold, the northwestern city of Culiacán, the capture took place about a 25-mile drive away, in the village of Jesús María, limiting both the risk of civilian casualties — there have been no reports of any, they said — and the reinforcements that the cartel could muster.
“We did not come to win a war, we came to build peace,” said Rosa Icela Rodríguez Velásquez, the security secretary in the president’s cabinet.
Early Thursday morning, a National Guard surveillance patrol spotted six suspicious vehicles that appeared to be armored, and called in support from the Army, Mr. Sandoval said. But the vehicles’ occupants ignored orders to get out and submit to a search, attacked the troops and fled.
After cornering them in a house in the village, the authorities arrested 18 armed men, Mr. Sandoval said, including one who identified himself as Ovidio Guzmán, referred to by officials on Friday as “Ovidio N.”
“A considerable number of criminal cells managed to group together with the intention of rescuing Ovidio N, attacking military personnel,” Mr. Sandoval said. It was in that second clash that seven soldiers were killed and the cartel began using heavy machine guns, he said, prompting the troops to summon still more reinforcements, including aircraft.
Rather than try to transport Mr. Guzmán on roads the cartel could block, Mr. Sandoval said, an Army helicopter landed amid the shooting and took him to Mexico City. He said two military aircraft were hit by gunfire and forced to land, and that a commercial plane at the Culiacán airport was also hit.
More fighting took place around nine burning roadblocks the cartel erected, he said, and one fight in the afternoon claimed more troop casualties. Mr. López Obrador said all the roadblocks had been cleared.
Mr. Guzmán faces prosecution in both Mexico and the United States. His father, who famously escaped a Mexican prison in 2015, was recaptured and extradited to the United States. He is serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison.