Mexico hit by gang violence ahead of summit with Biden and Trudeau

Members of the Mexican Army and National Guard secure the main entrance to “El Altiplano” maximum security prison in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, January 6. Ten soldiers and 19 suspected criminals have been killed in an operation to arrest a son of imprisoned drug trafficker Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, the Mexican government said on Friday, after a dramatic shooting spree at an airport.NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

An outbreak of gang violence following the arrest of accused drug lord Ovidio Guzman Lopez in Mexico threatens to overshadow next week’s Three Amigos summit by putting the host country’s security crisis at the center of a gathering intended to focus on migration and trade.

The Thursday arrest of Mr. Guzmanson of infamous Mexican narcotics boss Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman Loera, sparked gunfights between gangsters and government security forces that left at least 29 dead in Sinaloa state, a popular destination for vacationers and expats Canadians.

The move was an about-face for the government of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who had previously argued that the military fight against the country’s drug cartels was not working. In 2019, Mr. Lopez Obrador, widely known in Mexico as “AMLO” after his initials, supported the release of young Mr. Guzman after a previous arrest in a bid to end retaliation by cartel supporters. The eldest, Mr Guzman, is serving a life sentence in a US prison following an arrest in 2016.

Many in Mexico saw Mr Lopez Obrador’s apparent reversal as an attempt to show US President Joe Biden that Mexico is ready to take action against criminal gangs. If so, it may have backfired by triggering the bloodshed. from Mexico The president had tried to avoid.

In his daily press conference on Friday, Lopez Obrador denied there was any connection between the arrest and the upcoming summit, which will be the latest in a series of periodic gatherings by the leaders of Mexico, Canada and the United States. He said US authorities played no role in the police operation.

“As for the interpretations, there are a lot of them. We do not share them. We act with autonomy,” he said.

Mr. Lopez Obrador confirmed that the United States had requested Mr. Guzman’s extradition so that he could face drug trafficking charges. But the Mexican president said it would be up to the courts in his own country to decide whether there was enough evidence to prosecute. Mexican authorities said they monitored Mr. Guzman for six months and that he was wanted for fueling a fentanyl crisis in northern Mexico.

Some observers weren’t convinced the arrest had anything to do with the summit.

“This was done to show that Biden Mexico takes the capture of people who are on the FBI’s most wanted list seriously,” said Andres Rozental Gutman, a former high-ranking Mexican diplomat and foreign affairs official. “To some extent it was propaganda for the meeting next week.”

US intelligence has played a role in previous cartel-related arrests, helping Mexican authorities track down criminal leaders.

Meetings between Mr. Lopez Obrador, Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are scheduled to take place early next week at the National Palace in Mexico City. At the top of Mr Biden’s agenda is securing Mexican aid to stem the flow of asylum seekers from Latin America and the Caribbean trying to reach the United States

The Mexican government, meanwhile, plans to use the summit to strengthen trade ties in North America as a counterweight to China.

A spokeswoman for Mr Trudeau, Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, said the Prime Minister’s Office is “closely monitoring the situation” in Sinaloa, but did not say if or how the issue would be addressed at the summit.

After Mr. Guzman was arrested in Culiacan, the state capital, his thugs opened fire at the local airport, set up roadblocks around the city and torched vehicles in several towns. The Mexican army retaliated with a helicopter and machine guns, killing 19 gang members and losing 10 of their own soldiers.

At least one group of Canadian tourists have been trapped in a hotel in Mazatlan, The Canadian Press reported, after someone set fire to the buses that were supposed to take them to the airport.

Authorities closed airports in Culiacan, Mazatlan and Los Mochis on Thursday after gunfire hit an Aeromexico plane as it prepared to take off from Culiacan. No one was injured on the plane and airports in Culiacan and Mazatlan reopened on Friday.

“The city asked us to stay,” said Jozefina Grabic of Vancouver, who is vacationing in Mazatlan with a friend. They are staying at an Airbnb and plan to spend two more weeks in the area.

“We feel good,” she said, adding that they were monitoring the news in case the fighting got closer.

“The authorities have advised us to stay home for our safety,” said Paul Garon, who is wintering in Mazatlan with his wife.

Edmontonians have seen “a lot of National Guardsmen over the past few days,” he said, adding that “the Mexican authorities are making great strides in protecting us.”

Ms. Grabic and Mr. Garon said shops and restaurants closed on Thursday, but things started to return to normal on Friday.

Charlotte MacLeod, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said Canadians in Sinaloa should “limit movement and shelter in place if possible” and “not attempt to cross roadblocks”.

“The Government of Canada is advising all Canadians to avoid non-essential travel to various parts of Mexico,” she wrote in an email.

WestJet spokeswoman Denise Kenny said the airline has canceled flights to and from Mazatlan airport. Sunwing said its flights to Mazatlan were canceled and return flights were “affected by further delays”. Both Air Canada and Air Transat said their operations were not affected.

Fernando Belaunzaran Mendez, a former Mexican lawmaker and critic of Mr Lopez Obrador, said it was still unclear whether this week’s arrest was one-time or the start of a sea change in policy for the president.

When elected in 2018, Lopez Obrador promised to end Mexico’s policy of using the military to fight cartels, widely blamed for making the situation worse by sparking unrelenting violence. At the time, the president promised “hugs, not bullets” in the fight against crime.

“Lopez Obrador may have thought that not fighting them could restore peace. What happened yesterday is a break with this position. But we still have to see what will happen,” Mr Belaunzaran said.

Regardless of any connection to the Three Amigos, he said, the decision clearly helped the United States achieve one of its goals in its relationship with Mexico.

“They get what they want,” he said. “Which seems to fight crime.”

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