Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. (Ginnette Riquelme / Associated Press)
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador acknowledged Friday that he was personally behind one of the most embarrassing episodes of his term — a manhunt in which soldiers captured and then released a son of the notorious cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
“I ordered that this operation be stopped and that this presumed criminal be freed,” López Obrador told reporters.
He defended the decision, saying it likely saved hundreds of lives.
The arrest of Ovidio Guzmán López last Oct. 17 led to hours-long gun battles and cartel roadblocks on the streets of Culiacán in northwestern Sinaloa state, leaving at least 14 people dead, according to official accounts.
The scenes of war-like violence stunned Mexicans watching a live broadcast from the besieged city. It ended only after outgunned military and police units retreated and handed Guzmán over to his confederates.
The bungled operation drew widespread condemnation at home and abroad as a humiliating defeat and indisputable evidence that criminal gangs hold the upper hand in Culiacán and across broad swaths of Mexico.
At the time, the president voiced support for the retreat, but said that his security chiefs had made the decision.
But on Friday, López Obrador said he had chosen the best alternative in difficult circumstances.
“If we hadn’t suspended [the operation] more than 200 innocent people … would have lost their lives,” the president said.
His public revival of the debacle renewed debate.
“A humanitarian decision or the capitulation of the state?” Mexican journalist Víctor Trujillo asked on Twitter.
Both Ovidio Guzmán López and his older brother, Joaquín Guzmán López, face drug-trafficking charges in the United States.
López Obrador said Friday that a day or two after the failed operation President Trump called to offer help.
The Mexican president said he declined that offer as well as a similar overture following the killings in November of nine dual U.S.-Mexican citizens — all women and children members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect — in an apparent cartel ambush in northern Sonora state.
“In a very respectful manner, we thanked him [Trump] for his offer and he understood that it is our duty to respond to these cases,” López Obrador said Friday.
In his 18 months in office, López Obrador has tried to avoid direct confrontations with the country’s well-armed criminal cartels. He has described his approach as “hugs not bullets,” voicing the hope that new job opportunities, training and scholarships would deter young people from joining violent gangs.
But homicides have continued to surge, even in recent months as much of the country was in semi-lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.