4 January 2023, Hotels under siege as Sinaloa cartel terrorizes several towns – civilian and military venues come under fire

09 January, 2023 Hotel Attacks

On 4 January 2023, the Sinaloa cartel attacked multiple towns on Mexico’s west coast in retaliation for the arrest of alleged drug trafficking kingpin Ovidio Guzmán, the 32-year-old son of former Sinaloa cartel chief, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Global News Canada says the targeted towns were Culiacán, Mazatlan, Los Mochis, and Guasave. In technical military terms, this was a regional raid. The violence impacted hotels, airports, roads, tourist destinations, and military installations. As a result, the threat picture in Mexico has worsened, and the hospitality sector is increasingly at risk.

The triggering event

The Guardian reports that on 4 January at 4:40 am, Mexican military forces attacked a 25-vehicle Sinaloa cartel convoy, reportedly at the small fishing village of Jesús María, Sinaloa state (25.610109545228273, -108.773530447672), to arrest Ovidio Guzmán. Jesús María is 35 miles northwest of Culiacán city, the capital of Sinaloa state. After heavy fighting, Guzmán was captured and presumably prepped for extradition to US law enforcement custody. Extradition is partly linked to Guzmán’s alleged connection to deadly fentanyl trafficking into the US, which the Biden Administration indicated it would crack down on during an up-and-coming visit to Mexico the week of 9 January 2023.

The attacks

Hours after Guzmán’s capture, Sinaloa cartel gunmen, armed with assault rifles, .50 cal rifles, and armored vehicles, attacked Culiacán city, plus Mazatlan, Los Mochis, and Guasave, to terrorize the Mexican government into releasing Guzmán. Most violence appears to have taken place in Culiacán. The attack was not without precedent, says The Guardian in an interview with former Drug Enforcement Agency chief Mike Vigil. In October 2019, when the Mexican government initially arrested Guzmán, the cartel attacked Culiacán city to force President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aka “Amlo,” to release him. It worked. So, the Sinaloa cartel repeated that operation on 4 January, aiming for the same result.

Interestingly, during the attack, Sinaloa’s security secretary, Cristóbal Castañeda, tweeted: “We are asking citizens not to go out. We will give you more information when we can,” says The Guardian.

The main violent actions of the cartel were:

The Drive says the aircraft that sustained damages were:

As a result of the airport attacks, the government closed four airports, including Culiacán, Mazatlan, Los Mochis, and nearby Ciudad Obregón, says Global News Canada and AviacionOnline.com.

Current reporting says multiple hotels were impacted by the violence, mostly indirectly, but the cartel directly targeted one:

Mazatlan and Hotel Riu Emerald Bay

Hotel Two Select

It should be noted that a Canadian citizen who lives in Mazatlan, interviewed by Saskatoon CTV News, said there was no wanton violence in her area, only a few burning vehicles. She doubted the veracity of the threat reporting from Mazatlan hotels.

On the other hand, says the Ottawa Citizen, an extended family of 17 Canadians in Mazatlan packed into a van and fled the city because of the violence. As they made their way to the airport in Puerto Vallarta, part of which was a “white knuckle” journey because of the numerous and since abandoned burned-out roadblocks along the way, they saw “around 10 convoys of fully armed people heading [toward Mazatlan],” and they were glad they left.

By 6 January, Mexican security forces had deployed in force. They used ground and air forces to repel the attackers. Calm was reportedly resorted to the affected areas by 8 January, but the 10 convoys of gunmen driving toward Mazatlan suggests the security situation remains precarious.

Aside from this January 2023 operation and Sinaloa’s October 2019 operation to free Guzmán, there have been scores of other cartel and gang attacks targeting civilians to intimidate and manipulate the government. For example, in August 2022, Bloomberg says Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion, angry over the detention of some of its senior leaders, set up roadblocks, torched buses, taxis, and 25 Oxxo stores (like 7-Elevens) in Jalisco and Guanajuato states. They also gunned down four civilians at a Little Caesars pizza place. Other reporting cited the involvement of the Mexicles gang in the August mayhem. The attacks caused President Obrador to conclude, “It wasn’t just an attack between two different groups. It reached the point where they started shooting at civilians, at innocent people. That’s the saddest part of this situation.”

For more information on other cartel and gang violence that has impacted Mexico’s otherwise incredible, world-class hospitality sector, see Muir Analytics’ analysis on the matter here.


There are five takeaways. First, the tactics the cartel applied were effective. It applied the right amount of manpower, the right type of weaponry, and the right methods to cause chaos, fear, and limited destruction. The one hotel that was directly impacted was totally vulnerable to the attackers, and tourists were effectively stranded in hotels indirectly impacted. If the cartel had aimed to commit higher levels of violence at any resort or hotel, they could have done so unopposed.

Second, these actions demonstrate the Sinaloa cartel is a force to be reconned with despite setbacks inflicted by government operations and rival cartels. This was a sophisticated light infantry attack on one town, Culiacán, supported by what appeared to be hit-and-run or harassment operations on three others, all along a 245-mile stretch of Mexico’s Gulf of California coastline. This required effective spur-of-the-moment planning in the wake of Guzmán’s sudden and unexpected arrest, and professional command and control over multiple formations of gunmen, all deployed to key areas simultaneously.

Third, strategically, as of 8 January 2023, the attack was a failure. Guzmán was not released from government custody as he was in 2019. However, if Guzmán remains in Mexican custody, the cartel-on-civilian attack strategy might pay off.

Fourth, Mexican cartels and gangs attacking and/or harassing civilian targets is a definitive and troubling trend. None of the examples cited here were impulsive operations. They were intentional, methodical, and fueled by an increasing audacity and dehumanization of civilians. Targeting civilians to manipulate a population and/or a government can be defined as terrorism.

Fifth, this trend will continue in the near and intermediate term. This is especially true if, A) the government continues to arrest cartel and gang leadership, and B) these criminal organizations continue to attack each other. Muir Analytics explains this cycle of violence here. Such targeting will continue to include hotels. As a result, Mexico’s hotel and tourism risk profile has risen.

It is possible that civilian targeting might increase, and the scale of violence might worsen, especially if a cartel or gang suffers a particularly injurious blow. One nightmare scenario would be a mass abduction or massacre of civilians at a hotel or resort to exert extreme October 2019-style pressure on the government.

Muir Analytics runs the world’s largest, most sophisticated hotel violence database – the SecureHotel Threat Portal – with over 2,400 hotel attacks (and growing.) We can provide the hospitality sector with intelligence that facilitates full-spectrum risk reduction, which helps hotels protect guests, staff, buildings, brands, and revenues. Contact us for a consultation:  1-833-DATA-444.

Sources and further reading:

Death toll in Culiacán rises to 29 dead, plus 35 injured and 21 detained: Sedena,” The Yucatan Times, 7 January 2023.

‘Something we will never forget’: Ottawa-area family takes mountainous six-hour drive to get flights out of Mexico,” Ottawa Citizen, 7 January 2023.

As Mazatlan airport opens, B.C. travelers to Mexico tell tales of drug cartel violence,” MSN.com, 8 January 2023.

Mexico says 29 killed in operation to arrest son of drug kingpin ‘El Chapo’,” France 24 News, 7 January 2023.

Alberta tourists ride out unrest in Mazatlan, waiting for airport to reopen,” Calgary Herald, 6 January 2023.

Sask. residents stuck in Mexico amid Cartel violence,” Saskatoon CTV News, 6 January 2023.

Narco attack: Flights remain canceled at four Mexican airports,” AviacionOnline.com, 6 January 2023.

Mexico cartel violence/Alberta tourists ride out unrest in Mazatlan,” Calgary Herald, 6 January 2023.

Twenty-four hours of terror as cartel violence engulfs Mexican city,” The Guardian, 6 January 2023.

Mexico nabs son of drug lord ‘El Chapo’ before Biden visit,” Associated Press, 6 January 2023.

Canadians in Mexico advised to take shelter as cartel violence breaks out in streets,” Global News Canada, 6 January 2023.

Armed men stripped reporters and citizens of their cars in Culiacán,” La Otra Opinion, 5 January 2023.

Remarks by President Biden on Border Security and Enforcement,” The White House, 5 January 2023.

Mexican light attack plane strafes cartel forces after arrest of El Chapo’s son (updated),” The Drive, 5 January 2023.

Cartel lays siege to Mexican city after recapture of the son of ‘El Chapo’,” Los Angeles Times, 5 January 2023.

Some Canadians remain in hotel amid Mexican unrest, others see calm return,” CP24, 4 January 2023.

Mexico’s drug gangs target civilians in clashes that kill 11,” Bloomberg, 12 August 2022.

Narcos set fire to 25 Femsa convenience stores in Mexico,” Bloomberg, 10 August 2022.

El Chapo: Mexican police capture then release drug boss’s son after battle with cartel,” The Guardian, 18 October 2019.

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