Jesús María, ground zero of Mexico’s latest battle against the Sinaloa Cartel

Residents of Culiacán and neighboring towns recount the hours of violence that were inflicted upon them, in retaliation for the arrest of drug lord Ovidio Guzmán

A Mexican soldier walks past a torched car in the town of Jesús María, on Saturday, January 7, 2023.
Georgina Zerega

Two girls – both of under the age of six – play on their patio in Jesús María, a town outside of Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa. The surrounding ground is littered with broken glass and bullet casings.

“Watch out!” one warns the other. They walk past a mound of bloodied bulletproof vests, without understanding what is going on around them.

In this small town, nestled in the Sinaloan mountains of northwest Mexico, residents are just beginning to step out of their homes after hours of devastation. For more than 10 hours following the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán – the son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – the Mexican army engaged in fierce firefights with the Sinaloa Cartel.

A few hundred meters from where the girls play, a group of soldiers – with pride illuminating their faces – stand guard outside Guzmán’s ranch, which has been raided by investigators. In the battle to capture the drug lord on Friday, January 6, more than 29 people died – including 10 soldiers – and 35 were wounded.

The town of Jesús María – with a population of barely 5,000 – went to sleep last Thursday night with total normality. But at around 4am, many neighbors jumped out of bed due to the loud noises that could be heard from outside. The Army and the National Guard had launched the operation to capture Guzmán. They had been planning this for six months.

In 2019, the authorities managed to capture the leader of Los Chapitos – a brutal faction of the Sinaloa Cartel – but were forced to release him after dozens of his henchmen threatened to massacre civilian residents of a military neighborhood. In the first days of 2023, extra precautions were taken to ensure that such a failure wouldn’t happen again.

A truck belonging to the Mexican Army, torched by Ovidio Guzmán’s henchmen in retaliation for his arrest.
A truck belonging to the Mexican Army, torched by Ovidio Guzmán’s henchmen in retaliation for his arrest. Gladys Serrano

With helicopters protecting Mexican soldiers, the entire town was turned into a war zone. Culiacán – the state capital – is only 30 miles away from Jesús María. It has been subjected to two days of gang-led blockades and arson attacks, as have the roads between the two municipalities. On one of the main roads, an armored military truck was torched by the criminals, and had to be abandoned by the soldiers.

Jesús María is a stronghold for the Sinaloa Cartel, which is now led by the sons of El Chapo. Today, the bodies of young hitmen – the organization’s loyal fighters – lie on the ground next to unopened boxes of bullets.

José – who did not wish for his last name to be disclosed – explained how his property was damaged by the violence. Some hitmen – fleeing from Guzmán’s ranch – entered his house to fire at the security forces from the windows. They left behind a trail of bullet casings, as well as perforations in the walls and the roof.

“We were caught in the middle of the fighting… we wanted to get out, but we couldn’t,” says José, who sheltered his family in a small room.

One of the thugs arrived with two bullet wounds in his arm and asked for help. José gave him ibuprofen, and bandaged him up, so that he wouldn’t bleed to death. “What else could I do?”

The combat rumbled for more than 10 hours, in which none of the residents of the town wanted to leave their houses. Despite this, some were still injured by crossfire.

María Zavala receives medical attention beside her aunt at her home in Jesús María.
María Zavala receives medical attention beside her aunt at her home in Jesús María. Gladys Serrano

“The sound was scary… everything was happening very close by,” says a woman, who prefers not to give her name for security reasons. She was called by a neighbor who had been grazed by a bullet inside her house: “She told me: ‘take care of my children, please.’”

Another woman took refuge under her bed with her two daughters when the shooting broke out. Hiding there, she was hit by a bullet that entered through the roof of her house and got lodged in her foot.

“The girls were screaming and trembling and I was bleeding to death… I removed the cable from the iron and tied it up,” she explains. At noon on Thursday, the family finally dared to go out into the street to seek medical help.

Faced with such an onslaught, resident María Alejandra also took refuge under the bed with her 94-year-old aunt. They were there for nine hours, hardly moving. The only thing they dared to do was pray.

“The house was cut off,” she recalls tearfully. “I never get tired of giving thanks to God, because I don’t know how...” she gasps, without being able to finish her sentence. In front of her house, hitmen shot up an armored truck and set it on fire.

“I never experienced something like this before… I will never forget it.”

After 10 hours of confrontation – when Guzmán had already been airlifted to Mexico City – the army blocked access to Jesús María as searches were conducted. No one was allowed to leave – all electricity, water and telecommunications were cut off. Residents lived under these conditions until Sunday, when the government finally sent a convoy to attend to them.

The Red Cross set up tents, distributing water, food, blankets and medical aid. Forensic teams began removing dead bodies from the streets. Soldiers also carefully collected unexploded grenades from the drug lord’s ranch and began moving the destroyed vehicles.

By Sunday afternoon, the Guzmán ranch was emptied out and under guard. Despite the silence, however, Jesús María was still relatively deserted. Nobody wanted to be caught outside at night.

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