This story was updated on Friday, January 6 at 10:31 a.m. EST.
Reports of tourists taking refuge in hotels and transfer buses being lit on fire in northwestern Mexico are surfacing as widespread gang-related violence has broken out in select regions of Sinaloa state.
The Government of Canada, on Thursday (Jan. 5), issued a travel advisory for Culiacán, Los Mochis, Guasave and the popular resort town of Mazatlan, urging Canadians in destination to limit their movements and take shelter.
Ottawa says there are “burning cars,” exchanges of gun fire and threats to essential infrastructure – including airports.
Both Culiacán and Mazatlan airports are closed, and all flights are suspended at Los Mochis airport, until further notice, the advisory says.
Mazatlan, in particular, is a popular vacation destination for many Canadians as major tour operators, such as Sunwing and WestJet Vacations, offer sun packages there.
Cartel leader arrested
The disorder began following a pre-dawn security operation in which local forces captured an alleged drug trafficker who is a son of former cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, as reported in The Associated Press.
Ovidio Guzman, nicknamed “the Mouse,” had not been one of El Chapo’s better-known sons until an aborted operation to capture him three years ago.
That attempt also sparked violence in Culiacan that ultimately led President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to order the military to let him go.
Thursday’s capture comes just days before Lopez Obrador will host U.S. President Joe Biden for bilateral talks followed by their North American Leaders’ Summit with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Canadians caught in crossfire
The Canadian Press has reported on one Edmonton family vacationing in Mazatlán that was supposed to fly home Thursday night until their transfer bus to the airport was set ablaze by a drug cartel.
The family is reportedly doing OK, but are rattled by the incident as they have locked themselves in their hotel.
Aeromexico plane hit by gunfire
Reuters, meanwhile, is reporting on a chaotic scene at Culiacan airport where stray bullets struck an Aeromexico plane yesterday as it was accelerating for takeoff.
As seen in a video posted online, passengers threw themselves to the floor as they heard gunshots, which were reportedly aimed at a Mexican military aircraft nearby.
Aeromexico said in a statement that one of its jets was struck by a bullet Thursday morning, confirming that passengers and crew were safe.
Reports say the bullet struck the plane's fuselage.
Ottawa is advising Canadians to avoid areas in Sinaloa where demonstrations and large gatherings are taking place and to not cross road blockades “even if they appear unattended.”
Travellers should allow extra time to reach their destination and expect an increased presence of security forces also.
“Contact your airline or tour operator to change your travel arrangements if necessary,” the Canadian government noted.
Canadians in need of emergency consular assistance are being told to contact Global Affairs Canada's Emergency Watch and Response Centre by calling 001-800-514-0129 (toll-free from Mexico only), +1 613 996 8885, by text message at +1 613-686-3658, via WhatsApp at +1 613-909-8881, via Telegram at Canada Emergency Abroad or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunwing & WestJet alerts
In a travel alert posted Thursday (Jan. 5), Sunwing advised customers travelling to or from Mazatlan over the next 24-48 hours that the city's airport and surrounding roads may impact their travel plans and "there is potential for flights to be delayed or cancelled."
Customers currently in Mazatlan are being told to reconfirm their transfer times with their Sunwing representative in destination before heading to the airport.
Sunwing customers with upcoming travel plans for Mazatlan are advised to check their flight status before departing Canada.
Those that wish to make changes to their travel plans can contact the Sunwing Sales Centre at 1-877-786-9464 for available options.
WestJet has posted an "civil unrest" advisory for Mazatlan, which applies for travel between Jan. 6 and 7.
"We are monitoring the civil unrest in Sinaloa State closely and out of an abundance of caution for the safety of our guests and crews have proactively cancelled operations to and from Mazatlán International Airport today, Jan. 6, 2023. All impacted guests have been notified," said airline spokesperson Denise Kenny in a statement to PAX.
The impacted flights are WS2042 (Vancouver to Mazatlán) and WS2043 (Mazatlán to Vancouver)
"As the situation continues to evolve, we will make operational changes in the name of safety as necessary. We advise all guests currently in the region to follow all response instructions provided by local authorities," Kenny said.
Customers are also advised to check the status of their flights before leaving for the airport.