It began with a police operation that led to the arrest of the son of the incarcerated leader of the Sinaloa cartel Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. The son Ovidio Guzmán - known as El Chapito - is believed to have taken control of the powerful cartel after his father was extradited to the United States and when the news of the arrest spread a violent backlash quickly ensued.

"They are still shooting"

The million city of Culiacán was transformed into a war zone with firefighting between military and heavily armed cartel members. Burning vehicles on the city streets, canceled school tuition and a terrified civilian population trying to hide as well as it could.

- Dad can we stand up now?

- No honey, stay here on the ground. They are still shooting.

The video clip of a family seeking protection behind a car in the middle of a blank day is now spreading in Mexico as a reminder of how violence cuts right into people's everyday lives.

A shock to Mexico

Violence scenes are certainly nothing new in the state of Sinaloa, which is the cradle of Mexican cartels. I myself have visited Culiacán several times - met despairing people looking for their missing family members, seen the famous cemetery where the drug king's lavish tombs testify to tremendous wealth and interviewed a brave journalist and then reached the news that his life was extinguished with bullets. But Thursday's clash was still a shock - even for a society that had to get used to living in the shadow of violence.

The shock consisted not only of the extent of the violence that paralyzed an entire city, but also of the silence and ambiguity of the Mexican authorities. Ovidio Guzmán was released shortly after the arrest and many interpreted it as state power losing control over the explosive situation that ensued. Or worse: Had the government deliberately backed down after the Sinaloa cartel's force demonstration?

The government surrenders to the violence

The Mexican government's attempt at explanation on Friday has not given much clarity. They claim that there was no formal arrest warrant against Ovidio Guzmán and that he was therefore released for "bureaucratic reasons". At the same time, President López Obrador himself says he supported the decision to release the cartel leader to avoid a carnage: "to arrest a criminal cannot weigh heavier than human life." It is difficult to imagine a clearer capitulation to organized crime.

Thoughts go to the 80s / 90s Colombia where Pablo Escobar seriously challenged the authority of the state power. Left leader López Obrador was elected president of Mexico last year following criticism of the drug war and with promises to stop the recruitment of criminal gangs through scholarships and social programs. But a series of dramatic acts of violence have shaken Mexico over the past week and put the president in a severe crisis. Now a whole country expects the government to act.

The United States has a key role

The painful answer is that there is no simple solution to the violence. Neither preventative measures nor tough steps are enough for Mexico to emerge from the spiral of violence. In order to seriously curb organized crime, long-term work is needed to fight corruption within the state apparatus, put an end to impunity in the judiciary and offer people other dreams than the drug trade's temptations for quick money.

And a successful strategy must inevitably involve the neighboring United States. It is the money from the world's largest drug market in the United States that has given the Mexican cartels the economic muscle with which they bought loyalties and influence from police, judges and top politicians. And it is firearms from the gun-liberal US that kill tens of thousands of Mexicans every year. It is simply impossible to understand the tragedy in Mexico without seeing the cross-border flows of drugs, money and weapons that make up the criminal economy's bloodstream.

The most violent year ever

But relations between neighboring countries have been turbulent since the last US presidential campaign when Trump made Mexico the scapegoat for many of the US's problems. The situation will not get any easier in the future as the US embarks on a new intensive election campaign where relations with Mexico will surely play a major role again. And it is difficult to see constructive bilateral solutions taking shape in a political climate characterized by confrontational rhetoric, spectacular play and twitter diplomacy.

2018, with 36,000 murders, was the most violent year in Mexico's modern history. Now 2019 is well on its way to breaking the macabre record. Around Mexico, a violent population is holding its breath - where the hell does it break next?