MEXICO CITY — The Mexican authorities announced on Thursday that they had captured a son of the drug lord El Chapo in an early morning operation in Culiacán, a northwestern city that has long been the home base of the Sinaloa cartel.
Security forces arrested Ovidio Guzmán López, a son of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the infamous crime lord known as El Chapo, and transferred him to a special prosecutor’s office in Mexico City, the Mexican secretary of defense said in a news conference.
The capture of El Chapo’s son, himself a prominent cartel leader, allows the government to claim a victory in its halting efforts to combat violence during one of the deadliest periods in Mexico’s recent history.
“This arrest represents a resounding blow to the leadership of the Pacific cartel,” the secretary of defense, Luis Cresencio Sandoval, said at a news conference, using another name for the Sinaloa cartel.
“Attacks by the criminal group continue,” Mr. Cresencio said, noting that the cartel had responded to the arrest with road blocks and shootouts. The authorities, he said, are still working “to restore and maintain public order.”
The arrest was an opportunity for the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to make amends for a similar but botched operation three years ago, when the Mexican authorities briefly detained Mr. Guzmán López but were then forced to set him free after cartel gunmen overpowered law enforcement.
It also provided the government a public relations win days before Mr. López Obrador is set to host President Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada at a North American Leaders Summit in Mexico City.
But experts were skeptical that the capture of Ovidio Guzmán López, long known as the least accomplished of Mr. Guzmán’s sons, would have any meaningful impact on cartel activities.
“It is a message to the United States that Mexico continues the war against drugs,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City. “Does it change the structure of the Sinaloa cartel? No. Will it have an impact on drug trafficking? No. Will it reduce violence? No.”
The cartel reacted swiftly and violently to the arrest. Videos shared on social media showed buses and tractor-trailers aflame. Shots were reported near the Culiacán airport, which announced on Twitter that it had shut down operations for security reasons.
Armed groups lit vehicles on fire and blocked all the major roads out of Culiacán, according to a local intelligence officer. Gunmen fought law enforcement in the north of the city, where loud explosions could be heard and armed groups were stealing cars at gunpoint, the official said. Schools and government buildings were closed.
The intelligence official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, added that there were no public services and that streets were mostly empty.
Aeromexico, the Mexican carrier, said that at least one bullet had hit the fuselage of a commercial plane that was set to take off for Mexico City on Thursday morning. The airline said everyone on board was safe and that the flight had been canceled.
The intelligence officer confirmed that armed groups had fired on a military plane as it was arriving at the Culiacán airport on Thursday morning but that there were no reported injuries.
César Lara, 29, was walking away from the Culiacán airport after arriving on a flight from Mexico City Thursday morning when he saw a military plane landing and then heard gunshots, he said.
Not knowing where the gunfire was coming from, Mr. Lara ran back to the airport, where he and other passengers from his flight remained stranded as of Thursday afternoon. The airport was locked down, he said, and no one was allowed to leave.
“The only thing I want is to be at home, in peace and calm,” Mr. Lara said.
The Guzmán family has a long history of escaping capture by the Mexican authorities. El Chapo broke out of prison twice. Federal prosecutors in the United States say his sons helped orchestrate his infamous escape from a maximum-security detention center in 2015 through a mile-long tunnel dug into the shower of his cell.
Mr. Guzmán López’s American lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, who also represented the father, declined to comment on Thursday’s arrest. Officials with the United States Justice Department, which filed charges against Mr. Guzmán López and one of his brothers in 2019, refused to comment on whether prosecutors have requested extradition.
In October 2019, the security forces stormed Culiacán, detained Mr. Guzmán López and then released him after cartel gunmen unleashed a wave of automatic gunfire on the city, burned cars and took members of the security forces hostage.
At the time, Mr. López Obrador defended the release, saying that the authorities had to balance detaining Mr. Guzmán López against ensuring the public’s safety.
“The situation turned very bad and lots of citizens were at risk, lots of people, and it was decided to protect the life of the people,” Mr. López Obrador told reporters. “You cannot value the life of a delinquent more than the lives of the people.”
But the episode became a national humiliation for the López Obrador administration and cast doubt on the government’s ability to take on cartels in the areas of the country where they have the most power.
Mr. Guzmán López and his brother, Joaquín Guzmán López, were charged in February 2019 by federal prosecutors for “knowingly, intentionally, and willfully” distributing cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana for import into the United States.
Those charges were made public just one day after the elder Mr. Guzmán was convicted after a three-month trial in Brooklyn that revealed the inner workings of the Sinaloa cartel and how it sent tons of drugs into the United States.
The same team of prosecutors also brought federal drug charges against the elder Mr. Guzmán’s most recent wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro. Ms. Coronel later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Alan Feuer contributed reporting from New York.