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January 9, 2023

Black Thursday II and the Arrest of Ovidio Guzman

In a pre-dawn operation on January 5, Mexican army forces captured Ovidio Guzmán López in the rural community of Jesús María, approximately 40 kilometers north of Sinaloa's state capital, Culiacán. Also known by the nickname “El Ratón,” Guzmán López and his brothers (all sons of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán) control a faction of the Sinaloa trafficking organization. He had emerged from near-total obscurity to become (apparently) a priority target for security forces following the events of October 17, 2019, when security forces detained—and then were forced to release—him after gunmen laid siege to Culiacán. As in 2019, last week’s arrest unleashed a wave of violence, this time across the entire state of Sinaloa, though this time security forces successfully transported Guzmán López to a prison outside Mexico City.

By daybreak, gunmen, many of them adolescents, mobilized to seize and torch buses, trucks, and cars, setting up blockades on highways and urban thoroughfares. As plumes of smoke rose, and bursts of automatic gunfire echoed through the city, residents of Culiacán were forced to relive the intense trauma of 2019’s “Black Thursday,” as well as other episodes of violence in the city. Journalists reporting on events were threatened at gunpoint and had their phones, computers, and cameras seized. A generalized atmosphere of terror reigned.

Outside of the capital, travelers on highways were stranded after their vehicles were taken, and blockades affected both the northern city of Los Mochis and the area surrounding Mazatlán in the south. At Culiacán’s airport, gunmen fired on an Aeromexico plane, forcing it to abort takeoff, as well as attacking military planes that arrived later in the day. Both airports, as well as a third in the neighboring state of Sonora, ceased operations.

Where in 2019 the violence was tactical, attempting to force Guzmán López’s release, last week appears to have been more about causing chaos and possibly disrupting any other arrest attempts. At least 250 vehicles were taken across the state, in an unexpected wave of predation, and several stores were looted. Notably, the criminal operatives who mobilized seemed overwhelmingly young and inexperienced. Confrontations were nevertheless lethal: at least 19 gunmen were killed across the various confrontations, and 10 members of security forces lost their lives, including 5 in an ambush near Escuinapa.

At this point, there are more questions than answers surrounding the events.

First, what actually happened?

Official versions are somewhat conflicting: while claiming that the operation was the result of 6 months of intelligence work, officials describe an almost chance encounter between an armed convoy and a National Guard patrol. There are reasons to suspect the arrest was not accidental, since the “chance encounter” story is often provided, only to be disproved by later information. What is certain is that extreme force was deployed: videos of a helicopter-mounted cannon firing on a target quickly circulated on social media, and it appears that the military planned for a high-firepower confrontation.

The nature of that confrontation lies at the center of another major concern. In past episodes, the use of helicopter-mounted weapons has been closely linked to indiscriminate use of force and human rights violations (Tepic, 2017; Tamazula, 2015; Tanhuato, 2015). It was not until two days after the events that journalists and human rights defenders were allowed past a military blockade into Jesús María (and residents were allowed to leave), and initial reports from the community include several civilians (including one child) who were shot by security forces. Some activists seem concerned about the possibility of extrajudicial executions as well, given the information blackout imposed by the military and the fact that all bodies were removed before observers were granted access. A video from Noroeste shows the house where Guzmán was supposedly detained in a state of total disarray, and bloodstains throughout. Toys are also present, and a woman’s voice can be heard saying that several children had been in the house.  

Moreover, the delayed, and performative response by the local government, sending a humanitarian convoy on January 7 and announcing the effort to restore power, compounds the sense that the community was the victim of a larger conflict.

Second, why?

On one level, the biggest question surrounding Thursday’s events is why was Guzmán López targeted, and why now?

A popular interpretation, that this was a “gift” to President Biden or a demonstration of commitment before today’s trilateral summit, is flawed. While the timing is undoubtedly suggestive, multiple analysts have suggested that the decision to launch the operation may have had more to do with opportunity and operational intelligence: specifically, holiday celebrations around the feast of the three kings. The “gift” hypothesis also neglects close to forty years of history of security cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico. While it is true the U.S. government remains enthusiastic about the kingpin strategy, attitudes are lukewarm about the effectiveness of the Mexican judicial system to prosecute and sentence kingpins, and ultimately the U.S. is first and foremost interested in extraditions. This is to say, given recent events, including Mexico’s decision not to pursue a prosecution of General Salvador Cienfuegos, U.S. leaders are unlikely to be celebrating just yet. Moreover, the U.S.-Mexico relationship is more than just the security agenda. Presidents AMLO and Biden have other fish to fry including concerns about clean energy and migration enforcement.

A related question involves the role of U.S. agencies in providing intelligence for the operation. Journalists have varied in reporting that, in no particular order, the DEA, CIA, or DHS-HSI provided support, while the Mexican government has (as usual) denied any foreign involvement. While U.S. intelligence has traditionally been crucial in high-profile arrests, the situation is particularly murky at the moment, given the strained relationship between SEDENA, which carried out the operation, and the DEA (owing to the Cienfuegos scandal).

Furthermore, it is reasonable to ask what the U.S. gains from this arrest. While the officials north of the border have made clear they wants deeper cooperation on fentanyl, given the record-number of overdose deaths in the U.S., Guzmán López’s value as a trophy is also unclear on this grounds: his standing indictment mentions only cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana—not fentanyl. It is possible, however, that there is a superseding indictment but as today, if it exists, it has remained sealed.

It is also reasonable to ask why Mexican authorities would pursue Guzmán López. Officials admitted that there was no active case against him in Mexico and that the only arrest order was for purposes of extradition. It is unclear how important he is within his own organization, and indeed, it was only after 2019 that “El Ratón” (referencing Ovidio’s nickname) emerged into the criminal iconography of Culiacán.

Asking why Guzmán López and why may shed light on SEDENA. In previous analyses we have argued that the military is an active actor, rather than a passive participant in the militarization of security strategies. After the badly botched operation in 2019, which damaged SEDENA’s image as a highly capable force, it is not farfetched to think army leadership viewed Ovidio as an unresolved matter. Without attributing the operation to a personal vendetta, in an overwhelming show of force that allowed no room for failure, SEDENA demonstrated that they can successfully arrest a high value target.

Third, was it a success?

The question is based on definitions. The government successfully arrested and jailed Guzmán López, and did so at a time and in a way that allowed most residents of the state to shelter in place from the entirely predictable blockades and violence that followed. At the same time, once again the authorities roundly failed to guarantee basic security for the residents of Sinaloa, and it is that second failure that weighs most heavily. Suggesting that January 5 somehow exorcised the demons of October 19 badly misunderstands the meaning of the first Jueves Negro.

Fourth, what’s next?

Thursday’s events open the door to an uncertain future, for Guzmán López, the U.S.-Mexico relationship, criminal dynamics in Mexico, and those forced to live through the violence.

A rapid extradition seems unlikely. While an extradition request has been on the books since 2019, Foreign Minister Ebrard has asserted that Guzmán López must face Mexican justice first. Regardless, Guzmán López’s lawyers have petitioned to block the extradition, and a lengthy legal process is not only possible, but likely. How the Mexican criminal justice system handles the case could become one of the most important legacies of AMLO´s security strategy, and test whether serious advancements have been made in reducing impunity.

In the same vein, the arrest raises the question of whether or not this marks the beginning of a larger enforcement effort targeting the Sinaloa organization. Late Saturday night, Sinaloa’s Public Safety Secretary confirmed that a coordinated operation with local and federal forces was underway in Culiacán’s southern Miguel Hidalgo neighborhood although the motive for this mobilization is still undisclosed and no arrests were announced.

Another pressing question is what the arrest means for criminal groups in Mexico. Recent research has shown that the ways in which leadership removal leads to violence is not yet fully understood. Internal dynamics of criminal groups prior to leadership have important effects on what happens after an arrest or killing, and cases from Sinaloa offer robust evidence that arrests have minimal impacts on the profitability of criminal activities. This in part is the result of organizational incentives that keep the business operating even when managerial arrests take place. And while it has been common to discuss the drug trade around biographical accounts—Rafael Caro Quintero, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, etc—illicit activities require a series of middlemen to operate which means that while the removal of a single leader is disruptive, it is also never a fatal blow. As such, it is both a certainty that the drug trade will continue almost entirely unaltered and entirely unclear whether Guzmán López’s arrest will trigger violence.

What is certain is that the trauma of the second “Black Thursday” will linger. After the events of 2019 we brought together local and foreign journalists and experts to reflect on what had happened that October. Among the most powerful conclusions was that even a year later, there was still an enduring “open wound” despite official narratives that everything was back to normal. This reflection rings true today. The violence, deaths, and terror of January 5 plunged like a knife into the psychological scars. More than ever, it is clear that Sinaloans have never normalized violence, but rather remain its victims. Through their actions we have witnessed their resilience first hand. But resilience also has its limits. What lies ahead for them, and how society addresses the long-term impacts of the trauma, is perhaps the most important question.

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