UPDATE: Two airports in Sinaloa state have reopened on Friday but Canadians are still being advised to take shelter and avoid travel. Original story follows.
Canadians in Mexico are being told to limit their movements and shelter in place after violence broke out in the country’s northwest Thursday following the arrest of a notorious alleged cartel leader and drug trafficker.
The federal government’s updated travel notice for the country notes “widespread violence and security operations” in Sinaloa state, particularly in Culiacan, Mazatlan, Los Mochis and Guasave.
The advisory says the Culiacan and Mazatlan airports are closed and all flights have been suspended at the Los Mochis airport until further notice. Burning cars, gunfire and threats to essential infrastructure have been reported in the affected areas, officials added.
In a statement to Global News, Global Affairs Canada said it is “aware of Canadians affected by these events” and is providing consular services.
The violence was unleashed after Mexican security forces arrested Ovidio Guzman, a son of jailed Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, in a pre-dawn raid.
Officials said Thursday that Ovidio Guzman was involved in all of the cartel’s activities, especially the production of fentanyl that has flowed into the U.S. The cartel is one of the world’s most powerful narcotics trafficking organizations.
Alleged cartel members responded to Thursday’s operation by carjacking Culiacan residents and setting vehicles ablaze in the cartel stronghold. Local and state authorities warned everyone to stay indoors.
Videos shared on social media, which have not been independently verified by Global News, appeared to show heavy fighting overnight in Culiacan with the sky lit up by helicopter gunfire.
Airline Aeromexico said in a statement that one of its jets was struck by a bullet Thursday morning as it prepared for takeoff. Passenger video posted online showed people cowering on the floor of the plane. The company said passengers and crew were safe.
Later, Mexico’s Civil Aviation Agency said in a statement that an air force plane in Culiacan had also been hit with gunfire. In addition to the Culiacan airport, the agency said airports in Los Mochis and Mazatlan were also ordered closed and all flights cancelled for security reasons.
Ottawa’s travel advisory says Canadians in Sinaloa should stay put if possible and “avoid areas where demonstrations and large gatherings are taking place,” and to not cross road blockades that have been set up by either law enforcement or gang members.
Nineteen roadblocks were set up by the cartel in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Guzman from being flown by authorities to Mexico City, where he remains in custody.
A longstanding travel notice for Mexico urges Canadians to “exercise a high degree of caution” in the country “due to high levels of criminal activity and kidnapping.”
The local government in Sinaloa urged people to stay indoors and said schools and administrative offices were closed due to the violence. The U.S. State Department also advised Americans not to travel to the region.
Global Affairs Canada said in its statement 12,387 Canadians in Mexico are registered with the agency’s database, which it advises travellers and permanent residents to sign up with in order to stay informed of developments and access consular services.
A spokesperson noted that number “is not a complete picture of the number of Canadians in Mexico,” as registration is voluntary.
Donna Arellano told Global News she, her husband and two friends are “feeling pretty much safe right now” in their Mazatlan hotel despite the violence, which led to the cancellation of some planned tours Wednesday night and Thursday.
“They told us what’s going on with the drug cartels, (but) we’re not really scared,” the Chilliwack resident said.
Other Canadians who emailed or messaged Global News said they were also not in danger, but had heard about the violence occurring nearby and were told to stay inside. With roadblocks in place and businesses told to close, one traveller said Mazatlan was “a ghost town.”
The Canadian Press spoke with one Canadian whose six family members were in a very different situation, saying they were trapped inside a Mazatlan hotel as buses that were supposed to take them to the airport burned outside.
“It’s just chaos,” said Tina Dahl from Edmonton. Her brother, sister-in-law, their three children ages 10, eight and seven, and her sister-in-law’s mother were supposed to fly out Thursday night.
“There was a shootout at the airport so the airports are shut down and the cartel put their warriors outside the hotel. I just know my brother and his family are stuck in the hotel right now.”
Dahl has no phone line through to the hotel, she said, but she has been able to communicate with her family through Facebook.
“Sounds like they’re all OK,” she said. “(They are) obviously shaken. Just from reading between the lines of the texts and such, they’re pretty shaken.”
“I’m sure my brother’s probably got (the kids) at the pool, trying to keep them not (focused) on it,” Dahl said.
Dahl quoted from a note written by her sister-in-law: “When it first happened, they said ‘we’d try and get you on a flight at 2 o’clock tomorrow.'”
“I don’t think they’ll be flying home tomorrow. The gates are locked, the airports are closed and they’re burning Mazatlan city.
“The lobby is full of people that were supposed to fly out and if they’re not out by 5 p.m. they’re kicking them out. These people can’t go out in the streets if there’s buses burning out front and the cartel’s there.”
Carroll Ganam, another Canadian currently in Mexico with her husband, visits nearly every year and has never seen anything like this happen.
“We’ve come almost every year. We have for many years and certainly never had anything like this happen before,” she said.
“All of the stores were closed so I think the whole city is basically, you know, been shut down and till they get this situation resolved.”
On the resort where Ganam is staying, she feels “immune” to the conflict.
“It’s really easy to sort of live in this little island of luxury in the resort, but clearly you don’t want to step outside of it very far,” she said.
— with files from Global’s Elizabeth McSheffrey, Hann The Canadian Press and Reuters