The Mexican drug cartels strike again and this time only a few miles away from United States soil. A death toll that recalls war zones such as Syria, Libya or even Somalia in the 1990s, but this time it’s a small Mexican town just 35 miles from the US border that is the scene of a major armed clash that left 23 dead and six injured.

It all started on Saturday morning when a group of heavily armed men riding in pickup trucks and belonging to the “Northeast Cartel” (CDN) attacked the town of Villa Union (3,000) aiming at local government offices, including the town’s city hall which was riddled with bullets. The military-style raid forced federal forces to intervene in a battle that lasted for more than an hour and which left on the ground 17 cartel members, four law enforcers and two civilians.

The reason behind the assault is still unclear as the state of Coahuila, which indeed has a violent history, has been far from the peaks of violence that have been involving other cartel-infested states such as Tamaulipas and Sinaloa.

However, the assault is likely to be related to the struggle for the control of drug smuggling routes in the Mexican-US border areas. On November 4th, killers belonging to a drug cartel slaughtered nine people (three women and six children) of US-Mexican origin, belonging to a Mormon community in the state of Sonora, approximately 70 miles south of the US border. According to some analysts, the victims’ vehicle might have been mistaken for the one belonging to rival cartel members.

In October, a massive operation by the Sinaloa cartel prompted the federal government to release the captured son of drug lord “Chapo” Guzman and withdraw the army, which found itself outmanoeuvred on the streets of Culiacan and which led to the so-called “Culiacan Fiasco”.

The Culiacan fiasco

On October 17th, a gruesome battle erupted in the Sinaloa capital city of Culiacan as the federal security forces arrested Ovidio Guzman Lopez, the son of drug kingpin “Chapo” Guzman, currently detained in the United States, with a final death-toll of 13 including seven cartel men and one member of the federal forces.

Ovidio Guzmán (28) and his brother Joaquin (34) were both charged last February by the US Department of Justice with conspiracy to distribute drugs to be imported into the country and they are both wanted for extradition. The two are believed to be leading a faction of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel.

The battle went on for several hours as the cartel-gunmen indiscriminately fired their assault rifles, threw hand-grenades, torched vehicles, blocked roads and forced civilians into hiding. As the security forces were outnumbered they were forced to release Ovidio Guzman and to withdraw. Some of the scenes were even caught on video.

Neo-elected Mexican president Andres Manuel López Obrador, belonging to the left-wing party “Morena”, backed Mexico’s Security Cabinet’s decision to suspend operations and release the drug kingpin to save lives: “The capture of a criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of the people … many citizens, people, human beings were at risk,” Obrador said during a press briefing in Oaxaca.

However, the “Culiacan fiasco” raised a series of questions regarding strategical and operational dynamics that are worth pondering on. Firstly, how is it possible that the Mexican security forces did not expect such a furious and massive response to the arrest attempt of Ovidio Guzman while operating in a notorious stronghold of the Cartel? Secondly, why did the security forces decide to operate in full daylight and attempt to detain the kingpin in an urban area packed with cars, hotels, shops, bars and restaurants? Was the operation planned or was it the result of a semi-improvised action with very limited planning?

Mexican president, Obrador, is correct when he claims that saving human lives is far more important than “capturing a criminal”, however, such complex and delicate operations should not be performed in highly populated urban areas and the middle of the day, something which Mexican security forces and the Security Cabinet should have known.

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