The Battles After the Battle Interpreting Violence and Memory in Culiacán
By Patricia Figueroa
The city of Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, became the setting for violent confrontations between criminals and security forces. The events made national and international headlines and provoked a frenzy of commentary and analysis.
To mark the anniversary, this collaboration between Noria Research Mexico and Central America Program, the Mexico Violence Resource Project, and Revista Espejo returns to and re-examines the events of October 17 and their interpretations. In the analyses that follow, researchers, journalists, and locals reflect on what happened in Culiacán, and why.
What Happened on October 17?
In the early afternoon of Thursday, October 17, security forces surrounded a large house in the Tres Ríos neighborhood of Culiacán. The forces detained Ovidio Guzmán, one of the sons of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzmán, the imprisoned leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. In an immediate response, gunmen working for the cartel took to the streets, engaging in running battles with security forces in Tres Ríos and other areas.
The cartel reaction brought the city to a standstill. Armed men in trucks seized bridges and staked out major thoroughfares. They hijacked, emptied, and burned buses at intersections, sending columns of smoke into the air. People at restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations threw themselves to the ground or ran for cover as the gunmen and soldiers fired at each other.
Guzmán remained in detention, his location unknown, as violence worsened across the city. Inmates at Aguaruto Prison in Culiacán overpowered and disarmed guards. 55 inmates escaped. With strategic points held by gunmen, military reinforcements could not enter the city. A convoy of gunmen seized an apartment complex for military families, claiming hostages of their own. With pressure mounting, the security forces released Ovidio Guzmán. 13 people died during the violence.
At the time, there was little clarity about what was happening in Culiacán. Images and videos circulated online, and rumors followed. There were conflicting reports about who had been arrested and why, and about who had initiated the violence. Only in the days that followed would the sequence and explanation of events become clear.
At his morning press conference on October 18, President López Obrador stated he had backed the decision to release Gúzman (and would subsequently acknowledge having personally ordered the release). He famously stated that capturing a criminal was not worth sacrificing the lives of ordinary people. Further details emerged later. Guzmán was wanted for extradition by the DEA, and in the days prior to the capture, Mexican and U.S. security officials toured Sinaloa. The military operation that detained Guzmán was small and seemingly ill-prepared for the action.
“Who is in charge of Sinaloa?” Three years ago, I decided to ask this question, along with other questions about power relationships, exclusively addressing the young people of Los Mochis, Culiacán, and Mazatlán. Of the 350 participants, aged 15 to 25, 75% replied that they believe the drug traffickers are the ones in charge of Sinaloa, while just 18% referred to politicians, leaving business people, journalists, and the police very far down on the scale of power. Of those same young people, 98% were convinced that the most influential politicians of Sinaloa have made agreements with the drug traffickers, while 86% firmly believed that, in order for a drug trafficker to be successful, they must reach agreements with politicians. What is being referred to here is a brutal symbiosis, with degrees of mutual protection at high levels.
These perceptions are connected to our history. At least three generations of us Sinaloans have witnessed violent scenes involving drug trafficking that has been burned onto our collective consciousness. The question is worth asking: What was so new about the day known as Black Thursday? And what happened in Sinaloa on that Thursday that we had not seen before in Sinaloa?
On October 17, 2019, in Culiacán, shortly after lunchtime, the internet lit up in an intense way never before seen in the modern history of Sinaloa, as people exchanged the first images, videos, and audio recordings on social media—primarily Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter—showing a clash between soldiers, who had recently captured Ovidio Guzmán, and members of the Sinaloa Cartel, who were demanding the release of their leader.
The information flowed in an informal fashion, plagued with “fake news” and “post-truth” stories, as videos were shared, practically in real-time, of the crossfire at various points of a city that had turned into a warzone. Not only did we Sinaloans experience real-life anguish, but we also experienced a virtual reality and, even more so, an augmented reality.
Some of us experienced those “realities” on the street, in offices, in schools, in supermarkets, and in restaurants. In my own case, I witnessed it from the window of my home. I carefully peeked out to watch the smoke rising from the vehicles that were being burned in order to block the northern exit of the International Highway of Culiacán. In addition to this, eighteen other blockades of strategic points were reported that afternoon, in the city known as the epicenter of drug trafficking in Mexico.
Information and misinformation flowed with unprecedented intensity via social media, which contributed to generating fear, paralyzing the population, and sowing chaos. In the beginning, it was believed that Iván Archivaldo Guzmán was the one who had been detained, and not his brother Ovidio. As the hours passed, it was also reported that Ovidio was dead. Another video showed a man dressed in a military coat with his face covered—supposedly, this was Ovidio in custody. Another one of the notable videos showed gunmen entering the residential area where the families of the military personnel were located.
Videos taken from cell phones show people fleeing the bullets, men armed with rifles, and buses on fire. As a part of the “show” designed for social networks, a video was leaked of five young people in a car, bobbing to the beat of raucous music, armed with high-power rifles and wearing masks with LED lights. By 7:00 p.m., people still did not know what was actually happening, and the question on many people’s minds was how the soldiers planned to get Ovidio out of Culiacán—if it was practically impossible to do so by land, the only alternative was to fly him out.
Some citizens automatically turned into “improvised reporters.” In addition to recording what was happening with their cell phones, they also “narrated” what they were sharing: “We are informing you at this time (…) they have just detained a big-rig truck, they stopped it and set fire to it… Honestly, things are getting ugly out here; the best thing for us to do is to protect ourselves, we should stay shut up in our homes (…) Thank you very much for your attention. Take care! We need to have a lot of faith.” As the night went on, others sent out short videos just to clarify that “nothing has calmed down yet.” From the balcony of my house, I still saw the smoke rising from the burned buses (I took at least one photo out of morbid curiosity), and I could see that most of my neighbors were doing the same thing.
The closure of the International Airport of Culiacán, and the suspension of services by Uber and public transportation, brought traffic to a standstill in the city. The closure of supermarkets, as well as the indefinite suspension of classes at all levels, were the news stories that flooded the internet immediately. Two videos without much context, shared on social networks, were the cause of various interpretations—some of them were innocent, others conspiratorial. One video showed a greeting between soldiers and civilians carrying high-power rifles—was this collusion or surrender? A second showed several men (51 prisoners) leaving the Culiacán prison—had they escaped, or were they released?
Among the gossip that spread across online platforms, and the images and videos—many of them without adequate context to explain them—the “fake news” and “post-truth” stories were taking shape. To this day, they have continued to obscure important elements of a reality that has still not been entirely processed by the collective consciousness of Culiacán—much less Mexico—and an international audience that was closely watching one of the most spectacular episodes, and the most broadly spread by the media, in the entire dark history of Mexico’s drug trafficking capital. Culiacán was subjected to two types of violence that day: the explicit violence (physical and real), represented by high-power firearms, blood and fire, and the symbolic (virtual) violence, expressed via social media, with images and words taken out of context and recontextualized, with which the city was immediately held under siege.
A “logical” kind of logic would guide one to handle a detainee of that magnitude—someone requested for extradition to the United States, and the son of no less than “El Chapo” Guzmán—with the utmost agility, caution, and strategic intelligence. And yet, this did not occur. The bursts of machine-gun fire continued to ring out in various points of the city; nonetheless, if we consider the official number of people who were shot that day (8 dead and 16 wounded), many of those shots were fired into the air, or were fired with the dual goal of intimidating the population and threatening the police and military forces.
On Friday, October 18, 2019, I went outside to explore, to “get a feel” for the social climate. The fact is, the city of Culiacán was in a desolate state.
On that day, Ovidio Guzmán’s attorneys spoke to the media and, practically framing it as a complaint, stated that the elements of the federal forces had shown up at the home of El Chapo’s son “without any detention warrant on hand,” and for this reason, the authorities themselves recognized that they did not have sufficient elements to detain him, much less to extradite him. It was then that the President “gave orders for him to be immediately released.”
Days later, as an epilogue to this media circus, a communiqué was shared on social media which was supposedly from the Sinaloa Cartel (CDS), in which they “publicly” apologized to the population for the events which “were the result of the federal forces’ irresponsibility, who underestimated the power of our organization.” In capital letters, the CDS sought to make it clear that they “DID NOT ATTACK THE PHYSICAL WELL-BEING OF ANY CITIZEN WHO WAS NOT INVOLVED WITH THE EVENTS,” which would imply that we citizens were not at risk of being directly targeted by the cartel.
This communiqué was a part of the large media spectacle that, in the end, would define the events of that day. The smoke and flames that were shared on those new electronic media were part of the creation of alternative realities, augmented and often distorted. From the bowels of social media, a “post-truth” story emerged regarding October 17.
While the news all over the world focused on the detention and liberation of Ovidio Guzmán, on the chaos that a city had been subjected to by “an urban guerrilla group,” and on the surrender of the Mexican State, the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, limited his comments to justifying what occurred, minimizing the mistakes that were made, and interpreting the events: “The situation became very difficult, and many citizens were at risk, many people, many human beings, and the decision was made to protect human lives.”
“The capture of a criminal cannot be worth more than human lives,” the President said. What he failed to say was that the capture of a criminal, no matter what the level of his crimes may be, is an obligation of the State as a part of the guarantee of the Rule of Law which, for now, is perceived as being non-existent in Sinaloa. The President never explained how those human lives he referred to so abstractly would be at risk, or how many lives would be at risk, or why. He also failed to recognize the crisis of missing people in the state, and during his most recent visit to Sinaloa in early August 2020, he dared to affirm that “the stigmatization of Sinaloa as being a state with much insecurity and violence, is something that does not correspond to reality.” This “post-truth” account is an offense to the victims of forced disappearances, murders, femicides, and of other crimes which, even if they do not result in death, are extremely serious for those who suffer them. “Fake news” and “post-truth” are instruments of manipulation in the public and political arena. Some politicians in the United States call them “alternative facts,” while common sense would lead us to simply refer to them as falsehoods. When we live with our attention fixed on a digital world, it is of fundamental importance that we learn to distinguish between reality and falsehood, examining the facts from a place of reason, because simply observing them with the naked eye is not enough. When we talk about “post-truth,” we are talking about objective facts which are offered to the recipient in such a way that, after we filter them through the sieve of our emotions and ideology, they lose their force as facts that are able to generate a serious, responsible public opinion. In Sinaloa, we can be afraid, but we cannot be indifferent when a person who has committed a crime is not punished, for the simple reason that they will then continue to commit crimes.
Prior to October 17, 2019, we Sinaloans already had a clear answer to the question, “Who is in control of Sinaloa?” Nonetheless, the events that occurred on that day confirmed the generalized perceptions of a cartel that was treated as an omnipresent and all-powerful entity. An indisputable truth among a web of falsehoods, half-truths, and “post-truth” is the fact that “Black Thursday” became a highly-valued piece of digital merchandise in the world of social media, obtaining millions of clicks and generating significant profits, with millions of views all over the world.
Patricia Figueroa is a researcher and political analyst specializing in narcotrafficking, social conflicts, corruption, violence, and ethics. She has a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the Autonomous University of Sinaloa and is a native of Culiacán.