MEXICO CITY — At least 29 people were killed in the battle to arrest alleged drug trafficker Ovidio Guzmán, Mexican authorities revealed Friday, underscoring the enduring power of the cartel once dominated by his father, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Army and national guard troops detained the younger Guzmán, 32, on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Culiacan on Thursday. Seven soldiers were killed as Sinaloa cartel gunmen fired .50-caliber machine guns to fend off troops trying to arrest Guzmán and others in an armored convoy, Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval said at a news conference.

The resistance was so intense that the military had to call in helicopter gunships, he said. All told, 10 soldiers were killed during the arrest and in fighting that erupted across Sinaloa state afterward, including an army colonel who was ambushed in the town of Escuinapa, about 140 miles south of Culiacán, authorities said. Nineteen alleged cartel fighters were also killed.

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Guzmán’s arrest has been a priority for the US government, which considers him an important fentanyl trafficker and a top figure in the Sinaloa cartel. Twenty-one other alleged cartel members were arrested in the operation, according to Sandoval.

“As we can see, the cartel has an enormous paramilitary organization with immense capabilities in terms of logistics and firepower,” tweeted Guillermo Valdés Castellanos, a former head of the Mexican domestic intelligence agency, CISEN.

But while the government managed to arrest Guzmán, it did not seek to debilitate the cartel’s army, he wrote — allowing the organization to remain intact. The gunmen went on a rampage after the arrest, throwing up roadblocks, attacking the Culiacan airport, and setting buses and cars ablaze. In many cases, they appeared to encounter no resistance from Mexican security forces.

“The operation was a success in terms of the detention of Ovidio, but didn’t signify a change in the government’s strategy,” he tweeted.

Since taking office in 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vowed to end the US-backed “war on drugs” and instead use social programs to lure young people away from organized crime. He said Friday that his government had acted “in a responsible manner, to protect the civilian population, so that there weren’t innocent victims.”

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His public security minister, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, told reporters that the policy hadn’t changed but that Guzmán’s arrest showed that no one was above the law. “We didn’t come to win a war; we came to build peace,” she said.

Still, the Mexican Defense Ministry had to launch a full-scale military operation to capture Guzmán and contain the cartel backlash. The government poured more than 3,000 troops into the effort, including paratroops and special forces soldiers, according to Sandoval. An additional 1,000 troops were being deployed to Sinaloa on Friday, he said.

The government had tried to arrest Guzmán in 2019, It wound up releasing him after cartel gunmen effectively took control of Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, and threatened residents, including the families of military officers.

On Friday morning, authorities in Culiacan tried to restore normalcy to the city. Damaged vehicles were towed from main thoroughfares, including expensive SUVs and charred public buses. Classes at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa resumed. State police conduct patrols through the center of the city.

State officials sought to reassure people that it was safe to return to their daily lives. But even those attempts came with a warning.

“We consider that the conditions exist to return to normal activities,” Cristóbal Castañeda, the state security secretary, said in a tweet. “Even so, it is requested that if people are going to drive in their vehicles, they do so with the windows down, if they have tinted windows.”

Most days, Culiacán gives the appearance of a bustling, middle-class Mexican city. On Friday, a number of destroyed SUVs had been abandoned in front of a shiny Starbucks. The municipal government tweeted a photo of a worker clearing debris from outside a sushi restaurant.

“Culiacán is made up of honest, hard-working, supportive, happy and exemplary people, as well as incredible places, gastronomy, culture and much more,” the government said in the Friday morning tweet.

But many residents were still reeling from the previous night. “It was difficult to sleep,” said Angélica, a schoolteacher, who declined to give her last name. “We still heard gunshots, and here, when you hear gunshots, you turn off the lights, so that’s what I did. I closed all the doors. There was no way to sleep peacefully.

The Culiacan airport was reopened Friday after two Mexican military planes involved in the operation had to make emergency landings Thursday while coming under fire, apparently by gunmen trying to block Guzmán’s transfer out of the city. An Aeromexico flight to Mexico City was canceled after a bullet punctured the fuselage, sending passengers diving into the aisle for cover.

After the Mexican military captured Ovidio Guzmán on Jan. 5, criminal groups launched a counterattack, firing at planes at Culiacan International Airport. (Video: Reuters)

The government eventually managed to fly Guzmán to Mexico City and place him in the maximum-security Altiplano prison. His father, El Chapo, famously tunneled his way out of the facility in 2015, escaping through a hole in the floor of his shower. El Chapo was recaptured the following year and extradited to the United States, where he is serving a life sentence,

The younger Guzmán’s detention came just three days before President Biden is due to arrive in Mexico City for a summit. Many analysts believed the timing was no coincidence. Mexico has become the top source of fentanyl pouring into the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Washington has been urging López Obrador to do more to stop the shipments.

The Mexican leader denied that the arrest was the result of political pressure. “We act with autonomy, with independence,” he told reporters. “Yes, there’s cooperation, that will continue, but we make our own decisions as a sovereign government.”

Ovidio Guzmán faces a 2018 indictment from a federal court in Washington on cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana trafficking charges. The US government plans to seek his extradition, but Mexican authorities say the request will have to pass through their judicial system and is not likely to be approved swiftly.

US fatalities from drug overdoses will top 107,000 in 2021, the highest ever. Two-thirds involved fentanylwhich is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.

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