MEXICO CITY: Ten soldiers and 19 criminal suspects died in a massive operation to arrest a son of jailed drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Mexican government said Friday, with a dramatic shootout damaging three planes and sowing terror at a local airport.
Ovidio Guzman, nicknamed “El Raton” (The Mouse), had allegedly helped to run his father’s operations since the former Sinaloa cartel boss was extradited to the United States in 2017.
The 32-year-old was rounded up Thursday in the northwestern city of Culiacan and flown to Mexico City on a military plane following six months of intelligence work to track him down, the government said.
“Ten members of the military… unfortunately lost their lives in the line of duty,” Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval told reporters, adding 19 “lawbreakers” were also killed in the operation.
A colonel who commanded an infantry battalion was among the fallen. His team came under attack after the arrest was carried out, said the minister.
Another 35 soldiers sustained gunshot wounds and were taken to hospital, while 21 gunmen were arrested.
Sandoval said a passenger plane that was just about to take off from Culiacan airport, as well as two Mexican Air Force aircraft, were hit as members of the Sinaloa Cartel launched a furious offensive to rescue their captured boss.
The air force planes “had to make an emergency landing” after receiving “a significant number of impacts,” said Sandoval.
No injuries resulted from the plane attacks.
The United States had issued a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Ovidio Guzman’s capture. It accuses him of being a key player in the infamous Sinaloa cartel.
Gunfire and arson shook Culiacan after Thursday’s arrest, which came as Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador prepared to welcome his US counterpart Joe Biden next week for a North America leaders’ summit where security is expected to be high on the agenda.
School classes in the city were suspended.
Videos on social media Thursday showed passengers and Aeromexico airline employees ducking behind counters as gunfire rang out at Culiacan airport.
Cartel gunmen set cars and trucks ablaze at several intersections in the city, and authorities reported 19 roadblocks.
El Chapo is serving a life sentence in the United States for trafficking hundreds of tons of drugs into the country over the course of 25 years.
However, his cartel remains one of the most powerful in Mexico, accused by Washington of exploiting an opioid epidemic by flooding communities with fentanyl, a synthetic drug about 50 times more potent than heroin.
Ovidio Guzman and one of his brothers are accused of overseeing nearly a dozen methamphetamine labs in Sinaloa as well as conspiring to distribute cocaine and marijuana, according to the US State Department.
He also allegedly ordered the murders of informants, a drug trafficker and a Mexican singer who refused to perform at his wedding, it said.
Ovidio Guzman was captured briefly once before in 2019, but security forces freed him after his cartel waged an all-out war in response.
His release prompted sharp criticism of Lopez Obrador, who said the decision was made to protect civilians’ lives in the city of some 800,000 people.
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard has played down the prospects of a fast-track extradition, saying Ovidio Guzman was expected to face legal proceedings in Mexico.
Mexico has registered more than 340,000 murders since the government controversially deployed the army to fight drug cartels in 2006, most of them blamed on criminal gangs.