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TBI Stands in Solidarity With our Colleagues in Sinaloa

Friday, November 1, 2019TOPICS: Faculty and StaffFieldworkResearchUS-Mexico BorderStudy Abroad

begin quoteWhatever happens in Culiacán, whatever progress the city makes over the next months and years, the memory of this battle will make it feel that much more fragile and tenuous.

On October 12, 2019, a sunny Thursday afternoon at 3:30 pm, Culiacán, Sinaloa was transformed in an instant from a place of growing peace and prosperity into a warzone. Through both conventional and social media, the world watched a city of a million people enveloped in smoke, deafened by gunfire, and overrun by armed criminals for several hours. Calm only returned after the Mexican government released a wanted drug trafficker, and allowed hundreds of armed criminals to retreat unmolested.

Culiacán is a familiar place to many of us at the Kroc School. Led by Professor Ev Meade, Kroc School students and faculty have been working in Culiacán for five years. Through our field-based courses, certificate programs, and applied research projects, we have become a proud part of the local peace movement, and we are committed to pushing these efforts forward in the wake of this most recent outburst of violence. We’ve been monitoring the situation closely and to our knowledge, our friends and partners are ok, but shaken, like the rest of the city. Despite the tragedy and terror, there are key lessons to be taken from this experience.   

  

Kroc School Professor Ev Meade (left) with peacebuilding certificate program participants in Culiacán

What happened?

A group of fifty Mexican national guardsmen and special forces attempted to arrest the son of incarcerated drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, at a private residence in the heart of Culiacán, Sinaloa. Helmet-cam video from one of the soldiers involved in the operation shows an unarmed Ovidio Guzmán López pulled out of the house and held up against the wall of a closed-in patio with a sunshade over the top, by about a dozen soldiers in full tactical kit.

The Cartel responded with lightning speed and overwhelming force. Gunman cut off three of the four military patrols on the perimeter established for the arrest operation, laid siege to the federal prosecutor’s office, and blocked a total of 19 intersections across the city by overturning busses and trucks and setting them on fire, and then establishing machine gun positions behind them. On the same digital radio frequency used by the soldiers, cartel gunman issued the equivalent of an all-points bulletin, instructing gunmen to converge upon a military housing compound on the other side of the city and start killing the soldier’s families one-by-one. They also broadcast specific threats to soldiers’ families, and sent pictures to various officers of individual hostages they had taken.

Acting on instructions from the same Cartel leaders, prisoners rioted and fifty managed to escape the State Penitentiary in Culiacán, killing two guards. Cell phone videos captured them running down a broad avenue, as gunmen threw them weapons from out of the back of a truck, and they pulled civilians out of their vehicles and sped off. 

Mexican Armed Forces on the streets of Culiacán

These threats intensified a generalized sense of panic and terror in the city as they reappeared in chilling videos, gifs, and messages across social media, alongside footage of armed men roaming the streets, taking soldiers hostage, and setting up barricades and machine gun positions.   

The state and local governments, which had not been informed of the operation, issued shelter-in-place orders, and people hunkered down under their desks, in schools, stores, restaurant bathrooms, or wherever they could find shelter. Dozens were violently kicked off of busses commandeered by gunmen, or caught in parking lots and intersections that became free-fire zones, and ran for their lives.  Many couldn’t get back to their homes and families until the next day. It’s a minor miracle that only four civilians were killed.

Unable to move reinforcement into or through the city, facing the imminent execution of soldiers held hostage by heavily armed criminals, and uncertain if they could reimpose order without destroying the city, the federal government relented and released Ovidio Guzmán. The Sinaloa Cartel declared victory, abandoned the barricades, and the armed men retreated into their redoubts.

What does it mean for peace and peacebuilding?

In the most immediate sense, the battle for Culiacán dealt a blow to peacebuilding efforts, not just because the government was defeated or armed criminals were set free, but because it reinforced the stigma of such violence in Sinaloa and the belief that the government is totally unable to protect ordinary civilians, in spectacular fashion. Whatever happens in Culiacán, whatever progress the city makes over the next months and years, the memory of this battle will make it feel that much more fragile and tenuous.  

In addition to the terror and panic that they sow, part of the challenge that the stigma and spectacle a battle like this impose is that this battle was totally atypical of most of the violence of the “drug war” of the last decade or so. Most of the violence of the drug war is not the result of shootouts or largescale confrontations between armed groups, much less a siege that lasted for hours. The vast majority of deaths are the result of targeted assassinations. And most acts of violence, whether or not they result in murder, begin with a group of armed men “taking” an unarmed person against their will and torturing them. 

These are much more intimate acts of violence, and survivors and victims’ family members are much more reticent to share them with others. While most victims understand at some level that the kinds of violence they have suffered are common in contemporary Mexico, they do not actively realize that many of their neighbors, friends, and co-workers have suffered similarly. This collective silence erodes social cohesion over time. One of the primary goals of the Citizens’ Commission on Historical Memory, which the Kroc School co-convened with a team of local leaders last spring in Culiacán, was to create a forum for people to share these stories safely, and to catalyze a public discussion about these experiences. This work continues, and it has actively shaped how local people have responded to the terror and trauma they just experienced.

Signs of resilience

Indeed, one of the advantages of a major public confrontation like the October 17 siege of Culiacán is that it was undeniably a shared experience, a common point of reference for anyone who was there that day, and thus a potential basis for social solidarity. This advantage wasn’t lost on our partners in the local peace movement. 

In the middle of the chaos, one could witness effective back-channel communications between activists, educators, service providers, journalists, and local and state government officials through the messaging groups established to support several of our working groups. And much of the content involved directing people and resources to the areas of greatest need and questioning misleading images and claims from social media that threatened to inflame an even bigger social panic.

In the immediate aftermath of the violence, a multi-disciplinary coalition of clinicians, professors, journalists, and peacebuilders set up several different trauma healing forums and free clinics to help their fellow citizens to deal with the aftermath of stress and terror, and to help build a sense of common cause with them. University forums, a peace march, arts conclaves, and others have worked to reclaim the public spaces of Culiacán, all with similar ends.

In the coverage of the siege in the local media, the importance of capturing individual qualitative experiences of violence and trauma was on display like never before in Culiacán. Three of our six local team leaders on the Citizens’ Commission on Historical memory now work for El Debate, a regional newspaper based in Culiacán. Their ongoing coverage of the siege of Culiacán pays close attention to the qualitative experience of violence. They have created a whole section of the paper dedicated to reproducing individual testimonials of the experience, showcasing many of the lessons we learned together interviewing victims and witnesses last spring.

Culiacán is more resilient thanks to their work, and the Kroc School is very proud to be associated with this community.

Next steps

Ev Meade and Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Program Officer Daniel Orth will travel to Culiacán this month to lead a forum for local and state police officers — they were in the middle of the action during the siege, mostly trying to rescue and protect civilians caught in the crossfire, but largely left in the dark by those who planned and executed the arrest operation that provoked the violence in the first place, and any kind of social cohesion and peace that comes out of this experience will depend upon strengthening their relationship with the community they serve. We will also participate in a national violence prevention conference in Culiacán. For now, plans are still on to launch the sixth and largest version of our peacebuilding certificate program in Culiacán in January 2020. We will of course monitor the situation, but it would seem that our work there is more important than ever. Stay tuned. 

Further reading

Check out the following links for some of the better media coverage of the siege of Culiacán, and our interpretation of it:

https://www.debate.com.mx/culiacan/Seria-terrible-perder-confianza-en-la-paz-investigador-20191022-0092.html?fbclid=IwAR3rYj4zfFbIkvbqKpK12-ZBnRGRtHlIB8iVN3LDkn19aq_T8IgP4SInKsk

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2019-10-17/chaos-in-mexico-as-el-chapos-son-a-leader-of-the-sinaloa-cartel-is-reportedly-captured

https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/10/21/mexicos-fight-against-organized-crime-takes-dark-turn-after-urban

https://www.kpbs.org/news/2019/oct/21/violence-mexico-driving-renewed-migration-us/

https://www.telemundo20.com/noticias/local/Ovidio-Guzman-Lopez-enfrenta-cargos-en-EEUU-y-fue-arrestado-y-luego-liberado-en-Culiacan-tras-balaceras-por-narcotrafico-en-Sinaloa-563414911.html

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Ev Meade
emeade@sandiego.edu
619 260 4161

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