What was the Experience of October 17? Echoes and Aftermath
Fear took on the scent of gunpowder on the day that Culiacán was brought to its knees. Beginning at three o’clock in the afternoon, in the neighborhood of Tres Ríos, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Government engaged in a protracted exchange of gunfire.
For those whose recollections of October 17, 2019 continue to smoulder, their silence about that fateful day—and their emotional response when they do describe it—are both entirely understandable.
Those who have emerged from that conflagration understand that hysteria has teeth, and while it may not bite off chunks of flesh, it does leave teeth marks in the skin, causing temporary madness. Those who have emerged from that conflagration must know that no one escapes unscathed from the ruins of their own city.
This is a portrait of that fateful day that was so cruel and alarming that it has become unforgettable. These are the echoes of a war that just a few people were invested in. Now, one year after the battle, the wound continues to fester.
Ovidio: The Target
By the time that three o’clock in the afternoon comes around, the orders have already been given. The instructions are to rescue Ovidio, one of the cartel bosses, through fire and bloodshed, using all the arsenal and people available. Literally all of it.
The Navy forces have him surrounded in his house, located at 2340 José Muro Pico street, in the neighborhood of Tres Ríos, the most significant commercial location of the state capital. “There’s the fucking government for you.”
The excited chatter of spotters and hitmen crackles on the radios. The cartel shows up in full force. They’re stacked deep and wide, but this is no crowd of aimless idiots here—there is an order guiding their movements, their deployment of force.
“You shoot from here, you guys cover him over there, we’ll be here. Fire on the chopper. Take out the armored vehicles, the 50 calibers, the AK-47s. Take down the cars, get the buses out of there. Set them on fire. Occupy the streets. Make the city go up in flames.”
The Cartel takes control of Culiacán, and one thousand, two thousand hostages are caught in the crossfire, at the mercy of a stray bullet or a volley of automatic gunfire. Let the world see who’s in charge here.
Curled on the Floor of Her Sentra
Meanwhile, here is Alexia sitting in her white Sentra, at the traffic light where Universitario boulevard intersects with Enrique Sánchez Alonso boulevard. It’s looking like she won’t get out of here alive. This is where one of the heaviest clashes takes place.
She is all alone, and the chaos has just begun. In that chaos, all the cars around her are at a standstill. The world screeches to a halt on this October day, around 3:00 p.m.
She hears the first noises. Maybe it’s automatic weapons, maybe small arms gunfire, she couldn’t say. She doesn’t understand what’s going on—she was just on her way to buy tickets for the Dorados soccer game this Thursday night.
She rolls the window down a crack, leaves the motor running, and dives onto the floor of the passenger seat. She curls up into a tight little ball. Fear causes her to shrink down, making her fit in this tiny space where she could never have fit under other circumstances.
“I heard the racket. There was a loud noise, and then a burst of automatic gunfire. Even though I’m from Culiacán, I had never gone through that kind of situation before. It didn’t stop. Noise, racket, all kinds of different gunfire. I don’t even know how I managed to curl up down there. I curled up into a tiny little ball. I don’t know how I managed to squeeze into that space.”
She checks her cell phone and sees that her battery is down to five percent. She calls her boyfriend. She hears his voice and panics. She tells him that she’s stuck in the middle of a crossfire and she doesn’t know what to do.
She calls her dad. “What’s up, girl?” he asks. She explains the situation. The only thing he can tell her is, “Don’t move.” He is going to try to come to her location, along with Alexia’s mother, to try and rescue their daughter.
“That was when I started to panic. I started to cry. I couldn’t even scream. It was like I was consumed with anxiety. I was in my car for about three and a half hours. During those three hours, I was thinking, ‘I could get hit by a bullet here at any moment.’ I could hear the gunfire ringing in my ears.”
The operation to capture Ovidio Guzmán López is underway. It is being carried out by the Drug Trafficking Information Analysis Group (known by the Spanish-language acronym GAIN), a force under the Secretariat of National Defense. The Sinaloa Cartel responds with its own counter-operation to rescue their kingpin.
Alexia’s father doesn’t know any of this. The man attempts to approach the location. When he comes to the area surrounding the Dorados soccer stadium, he hits a wall—a group of cartel gunmen make gestures for him to leave. They have blocked off access to the intersection of Universitarios and Sánchez Alonso. He and Alexia’s mother protect themselves and stay closeby, waiting until they are able to enter the conflict zone.
For now, the operation to rescue their daughter, still balled up on the floor of her white Sentra, has come to a standstill.
Angie is not far from the traffic light by the City Club wholesale store when she becomes frantic. She wants to get away from this turmoil. The showdown has begun.
Nearby, at the same traffic signal, Erick is driving behind the Secretary of National Defense convoy. He sees the Sinaloa Cartel’s gunmen when they begin to fire on the soldiers.
They unleash gunfire on them from the front and the rear. Erick gets out of his car, leaves it there, and runs for cover among the nearby stores. He stays there until seven or eight at night. “My car still has the bullet holes in it…”
Israel is also at the same traffic light by City Club. When he hears the bursts of automatic gunfire, he speeds up and heads toward Dorados stadium. He hears the loud gunfire of a Barret M82. He stops the car then and there, in front of some random house, and hits the floor. He sees several luxury automobiles. Armed men emerge from them.
He continues to head toward the Salón 53 ballroom, hoping to make it back to his home in the neighborhood of Tierra Blanca. At that intersection, Israel sees the gunmen stop a trailer, shoot at it, and set fire to it. He turns back and, at the intersection of Obrero Mundial and Enrique Cabrera, he comes across another trailer in flames.
“I was afraid of getting hit with a stray bullet. I finally went inside a repair shop… I slept in there, because I didn’t think it was a good idea to go back to Tierra Blanca. Later on, I saw the battlefield… Countless burned trucks and cars. I cried when I made it home.”
At the Milow Bowl & Fun bowling alley in the residential development of Tres Ríos, Elizabet is celebrating her nephew’s birthday. There are dozens of children inside. “Thank God, we lived to tell about it. And for everyone who didn’t, we pray for their eternal rest…” This is where the party stops.
Crying Without Tears
Alexia cries without shedding a single tear. And she screams, she screams over and over. She screams inside her car, because she is all alone and she is afraid. The bursts of automatic gunfire around her do not stop. She can hear the weapons’ discharge ringing inside her ears.
Alexia is more than just frightened—she is terrified. She now understands the true meaning of the word, and what it consists of. She knows what sets terror apart from fear. She swallows and the saliva burns her throat on the way down.
“I screamed a lot. That day, I discovered a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. I screamed, but then I got scared that someone would hear me screaming. I kept quiet, I swallowed my screams down, swallowed the anxiety down. I remember that I cried a lot, but the tears wouldn’t come. It was terror. I was terrified. I wasn’t sad—I was very, very afraid.”
The battle rages on for half an hour, 50 minutes. It doesn’t stop. Neither side lets up. From her car, she can see a helicopter flying over the area. If they start shooting, she thinks, I’m going to get hit. I’m stuck in the middle of all this. How can I get out of here alive?
Alexia has opened the window on the driver’s side just a crack. The motor is still on. She waits for her chance, for some sort of ceasefire, so she can escape, but it doesn’t come. This is only the beginning.
She stays down there, crying without tears, filled with terror, curled up in a ball. While she has been curled up there for an hour already, she will have to stay in that position for two and a half hours more.
Gunfire and Screams
While Alexia takes refuge inside her white Sentra, a few meters away, Sara and her two children see a crowd of people running toward them. They hear the first shots, the bursts of gunfire. They don’t know exactly where they’re coming from or what is happening.
The McDonald’s shake that Sara had hoped to buy will have to wait until later. She, her children, her cousin, and her mother all hurry back inside the Bodega Aurrerá retail store.
People are running back and forth, looking for a place to take shelter. This confrontation is anything but subtle. People are getting out of their cars, running and screaming.
“It was horrifying. We were standing there, thinking, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ It was one never-ending hail of gunfire. Those bursts of gunfire were horrible. On top of all that, then the explosions started. We heard them close by. It was awful. And the gunfire, and the screams.”
Sara and her family go inside Bodega Aurrerá, the store where, just a few moments ago, they bought the groceries to make lunch. They will stay inside this store for eighteen hours.
The security guards close the main entrance. As soon as they lower the metallic roll-up doors, they hear people pounding on them. Outside, the soldiers are shouting for them to open up. There are more people seeking shelter from the violence. The bursts of gunfire continue.
There are around 80 people inside the store. All of them are led to a room at the back of the building.
“An hour went by, two hours, and the shooting didn’t stop. It went on like that from three o’clock in the afternoon until eight or nine o’clock at night. At midnight, they started shooting again. We were totally bewildered, because we knew nothing, nothing at all.”
The Missing Chunk of Time
There is a missing chunk of time that Alexia cannot remember. She says that she may have fainted or fallen asleep. A year has passed since that October 17th known as “Black Thursday,” and she still can’t recall it clearly.
All of a sudden, she wakes up. She is sweating; she feels very hot. The car’s air conditioning has shut off. She is still in the same place, at the traffic light of the intersection between Universitarios and Sánchez Alonso, near the City Club.
“I either fell asleep or I fainted; I’m honestly not sure. When I came to, I looked at the car’s clock. It was about 5 o’clock. My cell phone battery was at 2 percent. I called my dad up and I told him, “I’m fine, I’m inside the car.”
“To tell the truth, I was 90 percent sure that I wasn’t going to make it out of there alive. I was saying to myself, ‘I don’t want to die, but it’s out of my hands; there’s nothing I can do to save myself…’”
A thousand different thoughts go through her head. If she’s going to get shot, she hopes the bullet doesn’t hit her in the head. Please, not in the head.
It would be better to get shot in the hand. Although, if her hand gets shot, then she won’t be able to play with her band anymore. “We have a band and we play music.” She also said, “If I get shot in the hand, that’s it for my short musical career.”
It would be better to get shot in the foot. Bring it on, bullet, bring it on. Let the bullet hit her wherever it hits her, but don’t let it kill her. She’s already going through this, but please just let it not turn into anything worse.
In the store where Sara has taken refuge, men and women are panicking. She sees women praying. She hears a man cry out somewhere. Other people want to get out of there; they ask to be let out the back door. The store employees don’t let them leave. They will have to wait.
None of this is normal, and it isn’t looking like it will turn out well. Something is happening here, something serious—and judging by how things look here on the inside, things must be even worse on the outside. Because the gunfire continues. And it isn’t just sporadic gunshots, but bursts of automatic gunfire. Those endless, endless bursts of gunfire.
“We stayed in there overnight. Bodega Aurrerá provided us with blankets and pillows. They rose to the occasion, but they wouldn’t let us leave. Their security protocol was to not let us leave. So what happened next? People went into mass hysteria.”
They’re acting out of fear, the same kind of fear that Alexia is experiencing in a physical way at this very moment, curled up in an impossible position on the floor of her car.
“We were the ones who had to go through that, who had to suffer through it. I had to keep my head straight, I had to be patient and, above all, be strong, for my children. My children were crying non-stop. They were frantic. We got out of there at eight in the morning the following day (Friday the 18th). That was the time when they let us leave. We got into the car and we were like, ‘Come on, step on the gas, let’s go home.”
These are Sara’s words almost a year after the events.
Meanwhile, among those still stuck inside the store, the women are doubled over weeping, feeling utterly alone. The men—with that pride that is characteristic of Culiacán men—are right there with them, standing close or keeping their distance, just as frightened as the women are. Everyone feels the same raw, palpable terror.
Peeking Out into the Chaos
Alexia shores up her courage. She unfolds herself from the fetal position inside her care, raises her head, and peeks out to look at the chaos and the hail of bullets. There they are, sprawled on the ground, soldiers and cartel gunmen alike. “Fuck. I’m surrounded by them.”
Yes. She is surrounded. The cartel gunmen are firing from the bridge of Dorados stadium, from Universitarios boulevard, behind the City Club. The armored vehicles join in as well, firing from the side of Sánchez Alonso boulevard.
The bullets strike everywhere, but they haven’t yet hit the white Sentra. That stray bullet still hasn’t hit Alexia’s head—or her foot, or her hand. Her estimated ten percent probability of survival is still a possibility, here on this insane Thursday, as everything around her goes to shit.
Alexia sees a soldier lying on the pavement. The soldier shoots at the bridge by Dorados stadium. The man sees her and signals at her to wait, to hang on. He also asks her to duck down.
With the last bit of juice left in her cell phone battery, she calls her dad. She tells him that the soldiers have seen her.
This is her chance to escape the chaos. Two soldiers approach the Sentra and get Alexia out of it. They tell her, “Duck down as low as you can, and move fast.”
Her father is there with her during the rescue, listening in on the cell phone. Then the phone dies. Alexia has not been shot in the foot, the hand, or the head.
It is nearly six thirty in the evening. Alexia has just spent three and a half hours listening to the volleys of gunfire, aghast with white-hot terror, curled up in a ball on the floor of her white Sentra, lucky enough to avoid getting shot. As far as she can tell, she’s safe now. But nobody ever said the city itself was at peace yet.
The Other Chaos
The soldiers take her to the Calzzapato shoe store, nearby where she left her car. Once inside, Alexia comes across a different kind of chaos.
Women, men, children, teenagers, all of them are weeping. Traumatized. Screaming. Some are passed out, others are waving air at them with pieces of cardboard, with improvised fans hurriedly fashioned for the occasion. For the mass hysteria of this war with no end in sight.
“There were older people there, pregnant women, grandparents with children. There were about twenty of us.”
Alexia is brought up to the warehouse on the second floor. Once she’s inside, her fear subsides. The store employees have given her a drink of water. There, among the shelves of shoe boxes, surrounded by the smell of new shoes, she lies down on the floor.
Alexia says that she did not speak with anyone inside the store. She may have said two or three sentences at most. She doesn’t know why.
“I felt indebted to the Calzzapato employees, because they treated me so well. So what I did was, about a month or two later, I went back there and I brought them a little gift. I wrote ‘Thank you for your help’ on it. I brought them a cake.”
Close to nine o’clock at night, when the Sinaloa Cartel had managed to free Ovidio Guzmán, when the Government had lowered its head and began its retreat, Alexia is reunited with her father. He has finally managed to make it into the conflict zone.
Alexia asks about her car. The soldiers point at the place where they parked it. There is her white Sentra, without a scratch, free of bullet holes.
“My dad was looking at me, in tears. That’s when I broke down crying, I let it all out. He told the soldiers, ‘Thank you; thank you so much.’ They told him they were just doing their job. My mom was in shock. As we headed home, the scene around us looked like something out of a horror movie.”
“I Don't Want to Die”
At that time, Sara heard her son say:
“Mommy, I don’t want to die here. Mommy, I don’t want to die… I want to see Daddy. I don’t want to stay here anymore.”
He chokes the words out between sobs. Sara doesn’t know what to do. She can’t come up with the words to say to him, what to tell him, because she has no idea what is going on in Culiacán. All she knows is that out there, soldiers and cartel gunmen are battling it out, shooting to kill.
“My eldest son, who understands things better, told me, ‘Mom, I don’t want to die here. I don’t want to die here. Being in here makes me scared.’ And as a parent, how are you supposed to tell them that it’s going to be all right, when you have no idea what’s going to happen either…”
Both her children cry. They cry while the battle rages on outside, in a cloud of gunpowder, amidst a hail of bullets. That damn hail of bullets is the defining feature of this day, Thursday, October 17—the day when the Government detained Ovidio Guzmán, and then let him go free again.
The crossfire rages on out there, the stray bullets. The gunmen are out there, and the AK-47s, the 50 calibers, the armored vehicles… As many clichés of the drug trafficking world as there are bullets.
Culiacán is in flames out there, and a cloud of black smoke issues from the smouldering vehicles and rises to the sky. Inside the Bodega Aurrerá store, Sara and her family sit in fearful uncertainty that stretches out into the night.
Once this passes, Culiacán will again have to reinvent itself, attempting to forget the unforgettable.
Forget. That will soon become the key word. Quirino Ordaz Coppel, the Governor of the State of Sinaloa, knows what it means, because a few days later, he will ask the public to turn over a new leaf.
Is it that easy to forget, to turn over a new leaf? Sara says it isn’t. She says turning over a new leaf is something that she cannot do. She is now seeing the aftermath of that October 17. Her eldest son, just 10 years old, is unable to set foot inside a Bodega Aurrerá store.
“My eldest son is terrified of Aurrerá stores. After what happened, we moved to Mazatlán. I decided to take my children there. On a normal day there, we were out doing our shopping, and we went to an Aurrerá store. And my eldest son didn’t want to go inside. My children won’t set foot inside an Aurrerá store.”
She has also noticed a change in the behavior of her youngest son, age six. She talks about pyrotechnic firecrackers—her youngest son associates them with gunfire.
“He freaks out. He gets very nervous, he says he doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want to. They both get panic attacks. My anxiety became severe. It was a very difficult feeling, a very intense one. The Friday after it happened, my cousin packed her bags and left town.”
Dreaming About that Cursed Thursday
Alexia says that sometimes, what she lived through doesn’t seem real. She isn’t able to process what actually happened. She agrees that she has become very anxious.
A few months afterwards, she was driving to work when she felt the same kind of panic. All of a sudden, the light was green but the cars weren’t moving forward. People were honking their horns, and Alexia became frightened.
“The cars aren’t moving… What’s going on? I can’t see anything! I relived the whole scene.”
She put her car into reverse to escape, and she crashed into the truck behind her. “What’s going on, girl?” the truck’s driver asked her. “I’m sorry, are you all right?” she said. Everything was all right.
Alexia got back into her car and started crying. Damn it. It happened again.
“I’m afraid to honk my horn, to gesture toward other drivers. I get terrified when I’m stopped at a red light, waiting for it to change.”
“For this whole year, I have dreamed about that scene playing out in many parts of Culiacán. I dream that I’m stuck in the middle of a shootout, and I have to hide. I’ve dreamed about that tons of times. It happens in different places. It’s really weird. Sometimes I have a flashback out of nowhere, and I freak out, I get really anxious.”
The company where Alexia works has provided her with psychological counseling to work through her fear.
“It has helped me, but I have to admit that I’m still very afraid… I feel like I need to go back to the psychologist. I still don’t feel entirely well.”
She says that she has gone back to that place where she was caught in the crossfire. The first few times, she refused to go near the place. One time, she was in the car with her father, giving a ride home to a friend who lived in the area. As they drove closer and closer to the location, she became more and more afraid. Her father took the long way around.
Nonetheless, later on she went back and faced the place. Her stomach hurt and she felt nauseous.
“You know, it’s inevitable that I’ll feel like a sinking feeling in my chest… Every time I go by there, I get a burning feeling.”
What she feels is that bad vibe that comes when you feel like you’re trapped with no way out. Because it’s one thing to talk about Them, about the people in charge. But when you see them and feel how nearby they are, you buckle over, you lower your head and become submissive.
The terror that Alexia feels is everyone’s terror. This terror that causes one’s knees to buckle is brought back to life as the anniversary approaches, casting a dark shadow over the heart of Culiacán.
Yes and No
Sara says that the Government made the right choice… But then again, they didn’t. She speaks about the Government’s retreat, when they surrendered to the Sinaloa Cartel. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador later justified this withdrawal, under the argument of not putting the population at risk.
“When the decision was reached (to withdraw the troops) in order to not put the population at risk, so that civilian lives would not be affected, because more than 200 innocent lives would have been lost… And the decision was reached. I gave the orders to stop that operation and let the presumed criminal (Ovidio Guzmán) go free.”
Sara says that she agrees with this, in part.
“You catch him and you don’t let him go… And all those you-know-whats are out there, killing people left and right. I’m saying this from the point of view of someone who suffered through what I went through: I wouldn’t have liked for the Government to have said, ‘We’re not going to let him go no matter what, so deal with it.’ And then I’d show up on the news later on, as one more person on the list of the deceased… From that point of view, I can’t say a thing, I can’t go and say ‘López Obrador is a stupid you-know-what’... Thanks to that decision, my children and my family and I are safe. A year has gone by since then, and I’m here to tell about it. Imagine what would have happened if they had thrown grenades into that store, where eighty of us or so were inside…”
“And yet, I still don’t think it was the best decision. The drug traffickers are just going to keep on doing what they do. What is the only message that was sent here? That the Government can’t take on the drug traffickers. The Government has no say at all in what’s going on.”
Albaro Sandoval is a Sinaloan writer and reporter and member of the Revista Espejo team. He is the autor of the novel Lodo en tierra santa (Tierra Adentro), winner of the binational writing prize Novela Joven Frontera de Palabras / Border of words.