March 11, 2020 / 3:55 PM / 22 days ago

Skirmishes in Mexican city as president denies gang leader targeted

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A security operation in the state of Guanajuato was not aimed at capturing gang leader Jose “El Marro” Yepez, Mexico’s president said on Wednesday, after gunmen blocked roads with burning vehicles and exchanged fire with security forces.

The brazen skirmishes in the city of Celaya in Guanajuato fueled widespread speculation that security forces had closed in on Yepez, the head of the Santa Rosa de Lima criminal cartel, and possibly arrested him.

Chaotic scenes around the industrial city echoed battles in the northern city of Culiacan last year, when a massive reaction by the Sinaloa cartel led to the release from brief detention of one of infamous kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s sons.

The decision to free Ovidio Guzman led to warnings by security experts that other cartels would learn to react fiercely against future security operations.

However, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the violence in Celaya was unlike what happened in Culiacan. The operation was not an attempt to capture Yepez, he said.

He did not elaborate, except to tell reporters the operation was linked to earlier arrests of other gang members.

The Santa Rosa de Lima cartel is believed to be behind the theft of gasoline from illegal taps on pipelines belonging to national oil company Pemex, a criminal racket that had grown significantly in recent years.

“El Marro” is also suspected of organizing the theft of fuel directly from a nearby Pemex refinery in the city of Salamanca.

His wife was arrested in late January only to be released a few days later after a judge determined there was insufficient evidence against her. Last week, Yepez’s father was detained, accused of driving a stolen car.

Lopez Obrador aggressively confronted fuel theft early last year, shortly after taking office, ordering the temporary closure of especially vulnerable pipelines which in turn provoked weeks of fuel shortages.

Pemex data shows that the illegal taps of fuel pipelines fell dramatically last year.

Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Robert Birsel and Tom Brown

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