Mexican president says he ordered last year’s release of ‘El Chapo’s’ son

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MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador acknowledged Friday that he was personally behind one of the most embarrassing episodes of his term — a manhunt in which soldiers captured and then released a son of the notorious cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

“I ordered that this operation be stopped and that this presumed criminal be freed,” Lopez Obrador told reporters.

He defended the decision, saying it likely saved hundreds of lives.

The arrest of Ovidio Guzman Lopez last Oct. 17 led to hours-long gun battles and cartel roadblocks on the streets of Culiacan in northwestern Sinaloa state, leaving at least 14 people dead, according to official accounts.

The scenes of war-like violence stunned Mexicans watching a live broadcast from the besieged city. It ended only after outgunned military and police units retreated and handed Guzman over to his confederates.

The bungled operation drew widespread condemnation at home and abroad as a humiliating defeat and indisputable evidence that criminal gangs hold the upper hand in Culiacan and across broad swaths of Mexico.

At the time, the president voiced support for the retreat, but said that his security chiefs had made the decision.

But on Friday, Lopez Obrador said he had chosen the best alternative in difficult circumstances.

“If we hadn’t suspended (the operation) more than 200 innocent people … would have lost their lives,” the president said.

His public revival of the debacle renewed debate.

“A humanitarian decision or the capitulation of the state?” Mexican journalist Víctor Trujillo asked on Twitter.

Ovidio Guzman Lopez and his older brother, Joaquin Guzman Lopez, face drug-trafficking charges in the United States.

Lopez Obrador said Friday that a day or two after the failed operation President Donald Trump called to offer help.

The Mexican president said he declined that offer as well as a similar overture following the killings in November of nine dual U.S.-Mexican citizens — all women and children members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect — in an apparent cartel ambush in northern Sonora state.

“In a very respectful manner, we thanked him (Trump) for his offer and he understood that it is our duty to respond to these cases,” Lopez Obrador said Friday.

In his 18 months in office, Lopez Obrador has tried to avoid direct confrontations with the country’s well-armed criminal cartels. He has described his approach as “hugs not bullets,” voicing the hope that new job opportunities, training and scholarships would deter young people from joining violent gangs.

But homicides have continued to surge, even in recent months as much of the country was in semi-lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.


(Special correspondent Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.)


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