The sun had not yet risen in Culiacán when David Téllez and his family began to head to the city’s airport to catch a flight back to Mexico City after their vacation. But not long after setting off, they ran into their first crude roadblock, an abandoned vehicle blocking their way.

Téllez turned to social networks to find out what was happening and saw that the capital of the state of Sinaloa, a stronghold of the cartel of the same name, was full of roadblocks and shots.

It would be hours before Mexico’s defense secretary confirmed that the military had captured Ovidio Guzmán, son of notorious former Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, on Thursday in a nighttime operation north of the city.

Ovid Guzman Lopez
Ovidio Guzmán López during his arrest in Culiacán, Mexico, on October 17, 2019. CEPROPIE via AP file

Thus, Culiacán was plunged into a day of terror unlike any other its residents have experienced since October 2019, the last time authorities tried to capture the young Guzmán.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador criticized his predecessors’ aggressive efforts to capture drug lords, but his administration bagged the cartel’s high-profile figure just days before hosting the US president, Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, an escaped Mexican cartel kingpin known as “El Neto” died after a gunfight early Thursday morning, four days after he fled prison in a violent mass break, authorities said.

«El Neto,» whose full name was Ernesto Alfredo Pinon de la Cruz, was tracked down by intelligence forces in the city of Ciudad Juárez, on the border with the United States, and later shot after a chase, authorities said.

But at least in the short term, the people of Culiacán were paying the price for Guzmán’s arrest.

Culiacán residents posted a video on social media showing caravans of armed men in pickup trucks and vans rolling down the city’s boulevards. At least one convoy included a flatbed truck with a rear-mounted gun, the same type of vehicle that caused chaos and mayhem in the 2019 riots.

All entrances to the city were blocked and similar events were taking place in other parts of Sinaloa.

The Reverend Esteban Robles, spokesman for the Roman Catholic diocese in Culiacán, said that «there is an environment of uncertainty, of tension,» and that those who could were staying inside their homes.

“Many of the streets are still blocked from the cars that were burned,” Robles said.

The municipal government of Culiacán warned: “Do not leave home! The safety of the citizens of Culiacán is the most important thing”. Schools, local government, and many private businesses closed.

Oscar Loza, a human rights activist in Culiacán, described the situation as tense, with some looting in stores. On the south side of the city, where Loza lives, people reported convoys of armed men headed for a military base, but Loza said the streets around his home were eerily quiet. “You don’t hear any traffic,” he said.

Téllez continued to try to get his family back to Mexico City, dodging several more abandoned vehicles that blocked the roads and finally reaching the airport.

There, the family rushed to check in for their flight before employees at an airport restaurant urged them to take refuge in a bathroom. Armed men arrived at the airport to prevent authorities from airlifting Guzmán out.

Juan Carlos Ayala, a Culiacán resident and professor at the University of Sinaloa who studies the sociology of drug trafficking, said Ovidio Guzmán had been an obvious target since at least 2019.

“Ovid’s fate was decided. Furthermore, he was identified as the biggest fentanyl trafficker and the most visible leader of the Chapos.” Asked how locals were reacting to the arrest, Ayala said: «People have different points of view, but I think the majority are with them»: the Sinaloa cartel.

That may be because of the money the cartel brings to the region, but also because locals know that even after federal troops are withdrawn, the cartel will still be there. As bad as it is, the cartel has ensured relative stability, if not peace.

Guzmán was indicted by the United States on drug trafficking charges in 2018. According to both governments, he had assumed an increasing role among his brothers in running their father’s businesses, along with cartel boss Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard confirmed that the government received in 2019 a request from the United States for the arrest of Guzmán for extradition purposes. He said that this request would have to be updated and processed, but added that Guzmán will first have an open case in Mexico.

Police arrive on the scene after a store was looted in Culiacán, Mexico.
Police arrive at the scene after the looting of a store in Culiacán, Mexico, on January 5, 2023. Martin Urista / AP

At the Culiacán airport, a Mexican military flight was able to take Guzmán to Mexico City. Tellez’s commercial flight was waiting for its chance to take off as two large military planes landed with troops, three or four military helicopters, and Marines and soldiers began to fan out around the runway perimeter.

As the airline flight was finally preparing to accelerate, Téllez heard shots in the distance. Within 15 seconds, the sound was suddenly louder and much closer, and passengers fell to the ground, he said.

He didn’t know the plane had been hit by gunfire until a flight attendant told him. No one was injured, but the plane hastily withdrew to the terminal.

Samuel González, who founded Mexico’s special prosecutor’s office against organized crime in the 1990s, said Guzmán’s capture was a «gift» ahead of Biden’s visit. The Mexican government «is working to have a smooth visit,» he said.

He called the shots that hit the airliner «undoubtedly an act of international terrorism» and suggested that it could lead to very serious discussions between the two governments about the implications of these actions.

At dusk, Téllez remained in the terminal. The government had closed the airport, as well as the Los Mochis and Mazatlán airports for security reasons.

Asked if the attempt to capture Guzmán was worth another day of tension and uncertainty in Culiacán, Téllez said: «If they caught him, it was worth it.»