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Mexico failed to capture the son of ‘El Chapo.’ Can it contain drug cartels?

Mexico’s president defended his security forces Friday for releasing the son of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after they caught him, when members of the cartel opened fire and seized soldiers. Analysts say the failed raid casts doubt on the Mexican government’s ability to contain drug violence. Nick Schifrin reports on the significance for the U.S. fight against illegal narcotics.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Mexican state of Sinaloa erupted into violence Thursday,as police captured and then released the son of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

    The failed raid has called into question the Mexican government's ability to contain drug violence.

    Nick Schifrin explores what this says about the capabilities of the United States' top ally in the fight against illegal narcotics.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The descent into chaos played out on social media. A phalanx of Mexican security forces deploy to a neighborhood controlled by the powerful locally based drug cartel and capture their target, Ovidio Guzman Lopez, who now runs the family business built by his father, known as El Chapo, Mexico's most infamous drug lord, now in a U.S. prison.

    But then the cartel called in the cavalry. With music blaring and phones filming, gunmen with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades raced to the rescue. They deployed a .50-caliber machine gun that's so heavy, it's attached to the back of a truck. And the mayhem began.

    For more than four hours, cartel militia members and Mexican soldiers fought in the streets and paralyzed Culiacan. The violence left vehicles burning and dead bodies in the middle of the city in the middle of the day.

    For residents, it was absolutely terrifying. They fled for their lives, this woman carrying her baby in her arms. And on a nearby road, a father shields his daughter.

    "Daddy, can we get up?" she asks.

    "No, my love," he says.

    This level of violence is stunning even in a country known for violence, and it's never happened in this city. Here in the capital of Sinaloa state, the Sinaloa cartel, long led by El Chapo even when on the run from Mexican and U.S. authorities, controlled the city and kept the peace.

    And as residents searched for safety and the gun battles mounted, the cartel took soldiers hostage. And that's when the government released the kingpin they'd captured, having achieved nothing, except for the death of eight people.

    Today, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended the decision to retreat.

  • President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    The capture of one delinquent cannot be worth more than the lives of people.

  • Denise Dresser:

    I think what happened in Culiacan was a big mistake for the Lopez Obrador administration on all fronts, tactical, strategic. It evidences the contradictions of his efforts to pacify the country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Denise Dresser is a Mexican political analyst. She calls the operation a copy of Lopez Obrador's predecessors. In 2006, newly elected president Felipe Calderon officially declared war against the cartels.

    Armed forces began conducting deadly raids. They publicized their spoils, parading kingpins and weapons and showing off contraband. The operations weakened the cartels, but also set them against each other and increased overall violence.

    In 2014, 43 students went missing after they commandeered a school bus to get to a protest. Every anniversary, demonstrators call to end the violence, and that frustration helped get Lopez Obrador elected. He promised to be different.

  • President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    You can't fight violence with violence. You can't put out fire with fire. You can't fight evil with evil.

  • Denise Dresser:

    Hugs and not bullets, he says. And what happened yesterday simply shows that the Mexican state and his Mexican government in particular are failing at their mission to pacify the country.

    He is simply reproducing the failed strategy of his predecessors, which was to go after drug kingpins with the hope that that would dismantle cartels. And all it produces is further violence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Soldiers launched the raid with no arrest warrant and apparently no plan for extraction. And by failing to achieve their objective, the cartels become stronger, Dresser argues.

  • Denise Dresser:

    The more that the Lopez Obrador administration proceeds with these ill-conceived attempts to seize drug kingpins and then backs away, it's sending the message to cartels that they can basically do what they want.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today in Culiacan, they saluted the caskets of slain officers, and police families grieved for the husbands and fathers who'd been killed. But they were also angry.

    They shouted down the local governor, saying he had sent their family members to the slaughterhouse. He vowed their deaths wouldn't be in vain.

    But, today, the kingpin is free, and the cartel still runs the city, just as it did yesterday.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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