'It was a badly planned strategy'
Mexico's president faced a firestorm of criticism Friday as his security forces acknowledged they arrested kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's son, then released him when his cartel responded with an all-out gun battle.
Admitting his troops carried out a "badly planned" operation, Defense Minister Luis Sandoval said they briefly arrested Ovidio Guzman – one of several sons running the Sinaloa drug cartel since their father was extradited to the US in 2017 – but released him after being overpowered.
"It was a badly planned strategy," Sandoval told a news conference in Culiacan, the western city of 750,000 people that was turned into an urban war zone Thursday.
"The task force acted too hastily. [The operation] wasn't improvised, there was planning, but... it takes time to obtain an arrest warrant. When the operation was already under way, they decided to improvise and try to obtain a positive result," he said, after flying into the city – the state capital of Sinaloa, the Guzmans' bastion – for an emergency security cabinet meeting.
He added the authorities never "formally detained" Guzman, 28, one of at least nine children "El Chapo" fathered with three wives.
The six hours of clashes left one civilian and seven soldiers dead, and three police wounded, officials said.
Heavily armed cartel gunmen surrounded the house where Guzman was being held Thursday afternoon and launched a massive machine-gun assault on various parts of the city, sending terrified residents fleeing for safety and leaving the streets strewn with blazing vehicles.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended the decision to free Guzman.
"I support the decisions that were made. The situation turned very difficult and many citizens' lives were at risk," he told a separate news conference.
"You can't fight fire with fire," added the leftist leader, who said Mexico was acting on a US request for Guzman's extradition, received in September 2018.
But the incident turned what was already a difficult week on the security front -- with two other gun battles that killed 28 people -- into a total nightmare for the leftist leader.
"Little Chapo brings (the government) to its knees," newspaper Reforma said in a banner headline.
"This is a disaster any way you look at it," tweeted security analyst Alejandro Hope.
In Congress, members of the conservative National Action Party called on Lopez Obrador and his security cabinet to step down.
"Resign!" they chanted on the floor of the lower house.
Security Minister Alfonso Durazo denied officials had negotiated Guzman's release with his cartel.