CULIACÁN, Mexico — In the days following the siege of the city of Culiacán by the Sinaloa cartel, residents were overcome with relief: Relief that the terror is over. That more people did not die. And that government forces, which had captured the son of the former cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as “El Chapo,” handed back their target rather than keep waging a bloody battle.
The release on Thursday of Ovidio Guzmán López, El Chapo’s son, by an outgunned and surrounded contingent of Mexican soldiers led to widespread criticism of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for supporting the decision to yield to the cartel and, more broadly, for failing to tackle the country’s spiraling violence.
But residents of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa State and the birthplace of the cartel, do not share those feelings. They say the decision saved lives.
“People judge it as cowardly, but for us who actually experienced this hell, it was the best choice,” said Andrea Hernández, the wife of a soldier who lives in a complex for military families that was invaded and shot up by gunmen, who took at least one soldier hostage.
“No one else is in our shoes,” she said, explaining that she hid in her kitchen with her daughter during the terrifying clash. “What about us, the families of the soldiers who were here alone while our husbands were out there battling against them? Aren’t our lives worth something, too?”
Many here argue that if Mr. Guzmán López had not been released, the aftermath would have been much worse. Officials say at least 14 people died during the shootouts, but neither state nor federal authorities were able to confirm by Sunday that 14 dead was the final toll.
“It was a bad strategy for the government to go after him without a better plan, but it was the right call to let him go after the reaction,” said Brenda Medina, a waitress at a small restaurant next to where a shootout erupted in the commercial district of Tres Ríos. “We would still be hiding from the bullets back in the kitchen if they hadn’t let him go.”
Carlos Camacho was working at a gas station when a gun battle broke out just a few feet away, forcing him and dozens of other people to hide in a small storage room near the back of the building. The firefight was so intense that police officers begged for water and said they had run out of ammunition, witnesses said.
Letting Mr. Guzmán López go was the right decision, Mr. Camacho said, “otherwise it would have been a massacre.”
Citizens of Culiacán are not strangers to violence. Still, the extent of Thursday’s chaos shocked residents and drove them indoors for much of Thursday and Friday, with most businesses closed down, classes suspended and the streets deserted.
By Saturday morning, life in the city seemed to slowly return to normal. Shattered glass was replaced, bodies had been collected from the streets, and the debris of burned cars, tires and spent bullets was cleared away.
Still, traces of the violence were just about everywhere. Bullet holes pocked government buildings, restaurants and homes, and countless residents carried with them the trauma of what they’d lived.
Noé Isauro Beltrán, 39, had been in the middle of an ordinary day at the auto repair shop where he works when cartel gunmen opened fire at a crossing of two main thoroughfares. Mr. Beltrán was reportedly trying to close the shop’s iron shutters, to protect himself and others inside, when a stray bullet struck him in the stomach, killing him.
“What am I supposed to do now?” said Rocío Armenta, his wife, weeping. “He was innocent!”
The couple have three children.
On Saturday afternoon, a large military and state police convoy patrolled the city. Hours later, hundreds of military special forces had arrived to set up check points.
Cristóbal Castañeda, the head of the security for the state, confirmed that local forces had “no knowledge of” and did not take part in the military operation to capture Mr. Guzmán López. They learned about the target — and fiasco — hours after the drug lord had been released.
“The consequences of that I think are obvious,” said Mr. Castañeda. “We did what we could with the information we had, which was simply to react to the multiple reports of shootouts and try to protect the citizens to the best of our abilities.”
As the city tries to get on with life, some residents worry about the repercussions of Mr. Guzmán López’s release. Once the cartel leaders were able to force the authorities to bend to their will by turning on the population, they might try to do it again, said Osvaldo García, an employee at a tapestry shop.
“This will cause a reaction similar to a small child throwing tantrums,” said Mr. García, who saw armed men set fire to a bus to block a road. “The cartel men will throw violent fits from now on every time they don’t get what they want.”