(Analysis) The Two Battles of Culiacan

Alex Pietrantoni
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Skyline during the First Battle of Culiacan.
Smoke fills the sky of Culiacan During the 2019 Battle. Source: NPR

Professionalization, Tripartismo, Trasformismo

On 17 October 2019, a convoy of Mexican military and law enforcement personnel moved to surround the home of Ovidio Guzman Lopez, son of “El Chapo” in the city of Culiacan. Their objective was to arrest Guzman in order to enact a warrant issued by a U.S. judge. The Mexican Military successfully detained Guzman. Within minutes a region-wide cartel mobilization took place to prevent the exfiltration of the Mexican Military.

The Mexican military engaged cartel forces for several hours before finally releasing Guzman on the orders of President Lopez Obrador (AMLO) who qualified the decision as a choice taken to prevent the unnecessary loss of life. Regardless of the rationale behind the decision, the Sinaloa Cartel and their armed affiliates Gente Nueva (Los Chapitos) had effectively defeated the Mexican Military and deprived them of not only a major city (Culiacan) but an entire state (Sinaloa). For several hours it was apparent that the Federal authorities did not have the military force or political will necessary to confront organized crime. In addition, the first battle of Culiacan was notorious for footage of cartel gunmen employing high-profile weaponry such as 12.7 mm anti-material rifles and rocket launchers as they contested the state’s control over the region of Sinaloa demonstrating that organized crime was a credible military threat.

The authorities in Mexico City responded to the immediate loss of Culiacan by ordering 8000 men to the region to restore order and the government’s monopoly of force. Despite the eventual restoration of order, Guzman remained free. Outlets such as the NY Times offered mixed interpretations, for many, this symbolized a country on the precipice of outright state collapse. Sensationalist headlines such as “Mexican Cartel Rules City After Gunbattle” from the Wall Street Journal captured the fears of international observers.

Civilians Survey Wreckage Following the First Battle of Culiacan. Source: The Guardian.

The First Battle of Culiacan came about during a larger process of reorganization best exemplified by the formation of the Mexican National Guard. Originally intended to replace the amalgamation of local, state, and federal police forces to streamline crime fighting, the National Guard has since occupied a larger role in duties related to illegal immigration as well as the fight against organized crime. It is possible to observe through the formation of the National Guard an effort to move towards a centralized response to organized crime in Mexico while simultaneously moving to diversify the armed bodies available due to long-standing human rights concerns related to the Mexican Army and Marines.

In early January of 2023 the Mexican military again successfully detained Ovidio Guzman. While the Sinaloa forces again triggered a wave of regional unrest and employed high-powered weaponry to engage military vehicles and helicopters, this time the Mexican authorities were able to transfer Guzman to a maximum security prison in Mexico City before going on to restore order in Sinaloa. The operation entailed the deployment of approximately 3,800 military personnel as opposed to the 8,000 used in 2019 to restore order. The results of the second operation hint at several more extensive processes that have transformed the Mexican Government’s struggle against organized crime, namely the professionalization of the National Guard and a process of transformism that has isolated organized crime from potential allies and intermediaries.

Soldiers rotated to Culiacan to assist in restoring order post battle.
Mexican soldiers in Culiacan in the Aftermath of the First Battle. Source: CBC.


Through the two battles of Culiacan, it is possible to perceive both an evolving military logic and expertise within the Mexican Military and an increasingly national imagery used to demonstrate the primacy of the federal authorities in relation to the regional power centers of the Cartels.

In a counterinsurgency environment, there are two critical elements of command and control that any counterinsurgent force must seek to retain: unity of command and unity of effort. Unity of command allows for a single decision-making chain in the struggle to enforce the state’s role as the legitimate holder of the monopoly of force. Unity of effort meanwhile, is the struggle to extend tendrils of the counterinsurgent organization horizontally across society so that actors and agencies such as NGOs, local government, etc. work to promote programs and pursue objectives that are in line with the broader counterinsurgency.

In Mexico, before the formation of the Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection (2018) and the National Guard (2019), there were numerous organizations and agencies that had a possible nexus to the fight against organized crime. The first battle of Culiacan was an inglorious start to the professionalization of the counterinsurgent forces, but the principles established in that engagement; such as an emerging unity of command, had obvious merit when the second stroke of the Mexican government was able to successfully pacify Sinaloa.

Since the first battle of Culiacan, the National Guard has expanded in manpower and accrued experience in multiple mission sets that often deviated from the stated goal of combating organized crime. Before the formation of the National Guard, the Mexican Navy and Naval Infantry had a reputation as a particularly effective tool in previous phases of the drug war. This reputation likely motivated the belief that a militarized force was necessary as exemplified by AMLO’s statements regarding the standards of military discipline he wanted to see within the organization. In 2022 the National Guard became fully militarized.

Guardsmen from the National Guard demonstrating military bearing, equipment, militarization.
Guardsmen from the National Guard (Guardia Nacional). Source: War on the Rocks.


The current struggle against organized crime is a modern articulation of the same process as the formation of national identity in the post-revolutionary period. Historically the ruling political party the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR) and it’s later and longer lasting iteration the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) utilized a mixture of economic populism and national imagery to lay the foundation of an enduring model of governance that offered consistent growth in exchange for the curtailment of some economic rights as a result of gradual import-substitution industrialization. This economic model is Tripartismo. It originated in the immediate post-revolutionary period and attempts to encapsulate all social conflict (between labor and capital) safely within the terrain of the Mexican State. For much of the 20th century, tripartismo did achieve stable and consistent growth. Tripartismo was one of the primary forces motivating the Mexican Economic Miracle (and lasted from 1940 – 1970) and came to define the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

This period saw a massive expansion of consumerism and allowed for increased government spending with large portions of the legal economy dominated by intermediaries between the state and private industry. Since NAFTA, Mexico has transitioned to a modernized form of import substitution industrialization that prioritizes integrated industrial production (such as the automotive industry) and regional economic-industrial development.

However, the economic development overseen the PRI was not without criticism. Periodic overt repression and a perception of a lack of credible elections are some of the motivating factors behind perspectives that highlight historic authoritarianism in Mexico. The most notable instance of overt repression was the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre which had its roots in the global economic-political crisis of 1968. Despite some verifiable authoritarian tendencies, due to consistent growth and the increased provision of services, the era remains appealing to many and serves as an enduring point of reference in Mexican politics.

The modern Mexican economic model is a modernized version of tripartismo and the object of struggle between the Mexican State and Organized Crime is the right to occupy the third and defining position in the three-party formula. This third pole allows for a degree of stability that will facilitate managed development and entitles the arbitrating entity to a share of the profit and power guiding development. Both the Mexican State and Organized Crime have constructed governance models that provide tangible benefits for the Mexican population in an effort to secure their respective positions as the third pole of Mexican society.

Mexican Corporatism under the state seeks to utilize revenue from nationalization/mineral extraction (Lithium, historically petroleum) to fund wider industrial development with limited redistribution to guarantee social peace. This is observable in not only recent lithium nationalizations which has been likened to the historic Petroleum Nationalization of President Cardenas by the Movimiento Regeneracion Nacional (MORENA) which is the party of President Obredor, but also regional industrialization plans which seek to entice domestic and foreign capital to partner with state mechanisms to stimulate focused economic growth.

Mexican organized crime, insofar as it is possible to refer to it as a single entity, has a similar model of development that substitutes licit mineral extraction with illicit cultivation or transportation of narcotics. Organized crime is heavily integrated into the global illegal and semi-legal economy which gives criminal organizations access to world-class funding and resources. While differences exist between major criminal organizations, the tendencies and general methods of rule are relatively similar. This demonstrates not only the comparative weakness of the Mexican state in select geographic areas but also highlights the extent to which the sentiments of the populace can be captured by organized crime which operates through a governance model predicated on periodic remittances and controlled private development.

Cartel gunmen during the First Battle of Culiacan.
Cartel Gunmen. Source: CNN.


the interplay between the State, Organized Crime, and the populace in Mexico is not unique. In a complex system of governance, the state engages with and is composed of many competing powers, entities, and blocs. Organized Crime historically is to be expected to have some relationship with the political establishment and at times can successfully subvert government to its own end, state capture. MORENA and organized crime are both seeking to carve out space from the other while in an active albeit unofficial dialogue through interaction. While many outlets and individuals allege direct connections or relationships, the existence or lack thereof is beside the point. MORENA as the ruling party of the Mexican State must engage in some degree of competition with organized crime as outlined above, it is possible to conceptualize this existing simultaneously as interaction and tacit influence through the historic concept of “Trasformismo“. Trasformismo in its typical context (Italy), is thought of as a mechanism by which revolution was forestalled by constructing a vast centrist coalition or through the selective neutralization of particular leaders and ideas that could lead to revolution. I would propose that instead, the endless small accommodations and delayed decisive conflict are the animating and critical component of trasformismo if divorced from its Italian context.

 In Mexico, trasformismo is the endless struggle for the elimination of narco-violence even as organized crime expands operations and commands a growing degree of social influence. In exchange, as outlined by Angelica Duran-Martinez in The Politics of Drug Violence: Criminals, Cops, and Politicians in Colombia and Mexico, organized crime often is motivated to conceal violence in exchange for relative peace. There are claims that MORENA and the Sinaloa Cartel in Culiacan have a local quid pro quo agreement. If true, this minor agreement perfectly illustrates the endless noncommittal skirmish and tacit accommodation that characterizes Mexican Trasformismo which ground on after being momentarily interrupted in 2019.

In response to their defeat in Culiacan, the state was not idle. Delaying overt conflict, MORENA conducted several transformations within the military, political process, and economic sphere before committing to a decisive engagement in 2023. By isolating organized crime from the political opposition through trasformismo, MORENA simplified the conflict to a binary contest for control over Culiacan and the State of Sinaloa. As a result of the professionalization of the National Guard, the unification of command and control, and the isolation of Sinaloa through trasformismo operationally the Mexican military was able to achieve a resounding success. Like any successful operation, this does not decide the ultimate outcome of the fight for the third pole in Tripartismo or the future of Mexico and it will fall upon the government to exploit their success with future operations.

Securing Guzman and defeating the resulting unrest has provided the foundation for a degree of growing confidence and bellicosity which will likely increase as MORENA successfully approaches cementing its role in a new tripartismo. 

Mexican Soldier following the victorious Second Battle of Culiacan.
A Mexican Soldier After the Second (Victorious) Battle of Culiacan. ABC.


The two battles of Culiacan provide a window to observe the ongoing struggle for which entity constitutes the third pole in Tripartismo, the Mexican State or organized crime. Both pursue similar models of development with notable differences including licit or illicit foreign capital providing the foundation for a continuing import substitution model of development. Both entities provide services and extract taxes of one form or another from the Mexican people and both are seemingly cognizant of the need to demonstrate that they are a superior option with public order as the main avenue.

The Mexican State under MORENA has successfully endeavored to isolate specifically the Sinaloa Cartel from the political opposition through trasformismo. While there remains a degree of deniability, it is possible to utilize the second battle of Culiacan as evidence itself. The maneuvering of MORENA has ensured that in the actual struggle there is a binary of choices, Mexico or Sinaloa, and the national imagery used after the successful conclusion of the battle demonstrates that this is as much an ideological victory as a martial one.  

In addition, until recently Mexico has successfully consolidated agencies under the Mexican military in order to provide for the professionalization of the National Guard and the simplification of the anti-organized crime efforts. This has provided the Mexican government with all of the tools to wage a successful campaign against the Sinaloa Cartel. While organized crime will persist and it will remain a dynamic operating environment, the Mexican State has in the short term demonstrated to the citizens of Mexico that it remains, for now, the only possible third pole in Tripartismo.

Three books or articles to understand the background and some current perspectives on the conflict between the State and Organized Crime:

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(Analysis) The Two Battle…

by Alex Pietrantoni time to read: 9 min