Mexican Town Turned to War Zone Fears New Era of Narco Violence
Mexican Army (Photo CRedits: AFP)

Mexico, October 26: The bullet holes splashed across the walls are an unnerving reminder to residents of Culiacan: There is no telling when the narco-violence that terrorized the Mexican city last week could return.

People in Culiacan are used to living alongside drug traffickers. It is, after all, the state capital of Sinaloa, home to the powerful drug cartel of the same name and its jailed kingpin, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

But they had never seen violence of the kind that erupted on October 17, when the authorities' botched attempt to arrest one of Guzman's sons, Ovidio, 28, turned the city of 750,000 people into an urban war zone.

Armed with large-caliber machine guns, cartel gunmen launched a massive assault on various parts of the city, threatening civilians, exchanging heavy gunfire with the authorities and leaving the streets strewn with blazing vehicles.

Thirteen people were killed in the six-hour battle, including four civilians caught in the crossfire.

Badly outgunned, the soldiers and National Guardsmen who briefly detained Ovidio released him and retreated.

Now, as shops reopen, kids go back to school and life returns to something like normal, residents fear this could be the start of a violent new chapter in the city's uneasy coexistence with the narcotics business.

"We had never, ever seen anything like this... For the first time, the Sinaloa cartel attacked the very citizens it always claimed to protect," said Tomas Guevara, a researcher at the Sinaloa Violence Observatory.

- New generation -

It was just the latest in a long list of shocking incidents in Mexico's drug war.

The country has been hit by a wave of violence since the government deployed the army to fight drug trafficking in 2006, as fragmented cartels wage war on the army and each other.

In 2015, gunmen from the Jalisco New Generation cartel shot down an army helicopter with rocket-propelled grenades. Cartel hitmen regularly hang their beheaded enemies from bridges. Mass graves are frequently discovered across the country.

In all, more than 250,000 people have been murdered in the past 13 years. Nearly 50,000 others are missing.

But both Sinaloa residents and security analysts say there was something new in last week's violence.

"The local population was caught in the middle like never before. People never thought (the drug traffickers) were that strong, that their reach extended so far, that they were living right among us," said Elmer Mendoza, a crime novelist and life-long Culiacan resident.

Since "El Chapo," 62, was extradited in 2017 to the United States where he is serving a life sentence, several of his sons -- he has at least 10 children -- have taken over part of the family business, along with cartel co-founder Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

The sons are known for their flashy lifestyles. They flaunt exotic animals, luxury cars, jewel-encrusted guns and a private jet, on social media accounts registered in their names.

They are also known for being far more violent than their father. In Sinaloa, people are talking about a generational shift from "El Chapote" (Big Chapo) to "Los Chapitos" (The Little Chapos).

"Historically, we had not seen such a violent response" to the authorities, said Jose Reveles, a security expert.

"These are different times, the new generation is much more brazen."

Locals recall that even when the security forces recaptured Guzman in 2016 in the town of Los Mochis, Sinaloa -- exacting revenge for his humiliating escape from a maximum-security prison six months earlier -- the cartel did not rain down terror on civilians.

"Why didn't we see all this violence when they caught 'El Chapote' here in Los Mochis? Because he surrounded himself with older gentlemen who thought things through. 'El Chapito' surrounds himself with crazy young gang bangers," one 59-year-old resident told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Badly bruised by the episode, leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's government has deployed 400 reinforcement troops to the streets of Culiacan.

Not everyone is happy with the tactic.

"What we need now more than ever is to come together around the optics of unity and reconciliation," said a collective called #CuliacanValiente, which opposes the deployment.

The organization is planning a peace march on Sunday.