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Mexico admits freeing Chapo's son after 'badly planned' operation

Mexico's president faced a firestorm of criticism Friday as his security forces confirmed they arrested kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's son, then released him when his cartel responded with an all-out gun battle.

Admitting his forces carried out a "badly planned" operation, Defense Minister Luis Sandoval said soldiers briefly arrested Ovidio Guzman -- one of several sons who have taken control of the Sinaloa cartel since their father was extradited to the United States in 2017 -- but released him after being overpowered by cartel gunmen.

"It was a badly planned strategy," Sandoval told a news conference in Culiacan, the western city of 750,000 people that was turned into an urban war zone Thursday.

"The task force acted too hastily. (The operation) wasn't improvised, there was planning, but... it takes time to obtain an arrest warrant. When the operation was already under way, they decided to improvise and try to obtain a positive result," he said, after flying into the city -- the state capital of Sinaloa, the Guzmans' bastion -- for an emergency security cabinet meeting.

He added that Guzman, 28, was never "formally detained."

Heavily armed cartel gunmen surrounded the house where Guzman was being held Thursday afternoon and launched a massive machine-gun assault on various parts of the city, sending terrified residents fleeing for safety and leaving the streets strewn with blazing vehicles.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who faced stinging criticism over the episode, defended the decision to free Guzman.

"I support the decisions that were made. The situation turned very difficult and many citizens' lives were at risk," he told a separate news conference.

"Catching a criminal can't be worth more than people's lives," added the leftist leader.

"You can't fight fire with fire."

But the incident turned what was already a difficult week on the security front -- with two other gun battles that killed 28 people -- into a total nightmare for the leftist leader.

"Little Chapo brings (the government) to its knees," newspaper Reforma said in a banner headline.

"This is a disaster any way you look at it," tweeted security analyst Alejandro Hope.

"The only thing worse than trying to capture a capo without proper planning and unleashing an all-out battle is trying to capture a capo without proper planning and unleashing an all-out battle, then setting him free." In Congress, members of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) called on Lopez Obrador and his security cabinet to step down.

"Resign!" they chanted on the floor of the lower house.

The government also faced criticism for its murky communications.

Security Minister Alfonso Durazo initially said the gun battle erupted when soldiers on a routine afternoon patrol happened upon Guzman and arrested him.

Lopez Obrador, however, called it a planned operation carried out with an arrest warrant. Sandoval for his part said there was no warrant.

The government, which initially released only hazy details, took around 18 hours to admit in plain language that it had captured and then released Guzman.

"El Chapo," 62, was sentenced to life in prison in July in New York for trafficking hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States over the course of a quarter-century.

However, his cartel remains one of the most powerful in Mexico.

His extradition unleashed an initial period of instability in the group, as Ovidio and his brothers waged war with cartel co-founder Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada for control. But the situation has stabilized into a reluctant truce.

Ovidio and his brothers have tried to fill their father's shoes, but anti-narcotics experts portray them as flashy party boys who have little ability to run the business side of the cartel.

Lopez Obrador, who took office in December 2018, has struggled to rein in the brutal violence racking Mexico.

The country has registered more than 250,000 murders since the government controversially deployed the army to fight drug cartels in 2006.

Many experts blame the "drug war" for spiraling violence, as fragmented cartels battle each other and the army.

This year appears on track to set a new homicide record, with 23,063 murders as of August.