The Mexican city of Culiacan lived under drug cartel terror for 12 hours last week as gang members forced the government to free a drug lord's son. The massive, rolling gunbattle in Culiacan, capital of Sinaloa state, was shocking for the openness of the government's capitulation and the brazenness of gunmen who drove machine-gun mounted armoured trucks through the streets.

But in state after state, the Mexican government long ago relinquished effective control of whole towns, cities and regions to the drug cartels.

"They are the law here. If you have a problem, you go to them. They solve it quickly," said a young mother in the town of El Aguaje, in western Michoacan state.People can't turn to police: they are too afraid to enter the town.

When a convoy of Michoacan state police made a rare appearance in El Aguaje last Monday, they were ambushed and slaughtered by Jalisco cartel gunmen. Thirteen state police officers were shot or burned to death in their vehicles. When police returned to recover the burned-out patrol vehicles the next day, they were in such a hurry they left behind the crushed, burned, bullet-pierced skull of one of their colleagues lying on the ground.

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In the neighbouring town of El Terrero, the rival New Michoacan Family cartel and its armed wing, the Viagras, have daubed their initials on houses and lamp posts, and last week burned trucks and buses to block the bridge and prevent a Jalisco cartel incursion.

In some cases, the government has defended cartel boundaries, apparently as part of its strategy of avoiding bloodshed.

In Guerrero state, soldiers and state police man checkpoints between rival gangs of vigilantes, many allied with drug gangs. Soldiers allow vigilantes armed with assault rifles to roam freely, but not to invade each other's territories.

And in the northern state of Tamaulipas, when the US began returning asylum seekers, the government knew it couldn't protect the migrants from the Zetas drug cartel in the border city of Nuevo Laredo and simply bussed them out.

In many regions, cartels enriched by drug profits have held extensive control for at least a decade, buying off or cowing law enforcement and building huge arsenals, along with networks of informants to protect narcotics routes from the government or rivals.

The cartel grip in Tamaulipas was so firm by 2011 Zetas gunmen were able to kidnap almost 200 people from passing buses and kill them. Nobody reported the crimes for months.

In this context, the government's decision to release drug lord Ovidio Guzman — son of imprisoned capo Joaquin Guzman Loera — after the Culiacan shootouts was striking only because the government so publicly dropped even the pretence of enforcing the law.

"It's not unprecedented for Mexican authorities to pick up a major capo and then release him; that's actually unfortunately too common," said David Shirk, a political science professor at the University of San Diego. "But what's really unprecedented is to openly acknowledge that the state does not have the capacity or the stomach for keeping a major capo behind bars because of the potential consequences.

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"But what message does it send to people who are under the yoke of criminal organisations all over Mexico?" Shirk asked. "I think the message is, 'You're on your own'."

The message to soldiers in the Mexican army is also pretty clear.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office less than a year ago, has repeatedly urged military restraint, saying his predecessors' hardline confrontation strategy in gang-controlled areas "turned this country into a cemetery, and we don't want that any more".

And the message to the cartels is clear. "Of course this is a victory for the Sinaloa Cartel, and a defeat for everyone," said Ismael Bojorquez, the director of the Sinaloa newspaper Rio Doce.

And the message for the rest of the world? Don't expect Mexico to help capture or extradite drug lords any more, as the country did with the elder Guzman.

"It's very clear that the federal government is ceding territory and not just rural territory, but major cities and perhaps even entire states to drug traffickers," Shirk said.

- AP