Considered by the US government to be the most powerful drug dealer of all time, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, already has a successor. His name is Dámaso López Núñez, better known as “El Licenciado.”
According to information from agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), his era began at the end of 2016, after a battle against El Chapo and his sons for power inside the cartel, in which the erstwhile boss was defeated. El Chapo was extradited by the Mexican government to New York on January 19 of this year.
Although the US Treasury Department had first accused El Licenciado of being one of the main operators of the Sinaloa cartel back in 2013, there is still very little known about the criminal career, face and personality of the man who took the place of El Chapo in “the biggest, most profitable drug trafficking organization in the world” as a New York federal court defined the cartel that Guzmán Loera has headed, along with Ismael Zambada García, for the past 15 years.
López Núñez, born on February 22, 1966, is from the El Dorado community in Culiacán, in the state of Sinaloa, where all the most important drug bosses in Mexico were born. He was the commander of the judiciary police and vice-director of a maximum security federal prison in Puente Grande, Jalisco, at the same time as El Chapo was a prisoner there. It was during this period that López got to know him and became his faithful servant, creating a riot squad inside the prison which was known as “the Sinaloas”; helping El Chapo to bribe the authorities and corrupt officials; and finally, helping him escape from prison in January 2001, with the complicity of other federal officials.
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of Agência Pública. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Portuguese original here.
Those who know El Licenciado describe him as an astute, explosive man, who is not ruled by his heart when it comes to making drug business decisions. It is believed that his centre of operations is in Culiacán, where he moves about openly. And after 15 years of service to El Chapo, he has created his own criminal structure that includes bought-off authorities and a wide network of drug trafficking contacts in Mexico, the United States, and Central and South America.
His father Dámaso López García was appointed attorney general of Culiacán in 2007 by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI). López García’s death in September 2009 caused then-mayor Jesús Vizcarra, also of the PRI, to call for a minute’s silence in his honour.
The Right Arm
Dámaso López Núñez and Joaquín Guzmán Loera got to know each other in 1999 in the maximum security prison in Puente Grande, when López was named vice director of the prison. At the time, El Licenciado was 33 years old. He arrived along with a team of collaborators known as the Sinaloas: commanders Carlos Fernando Ochoa López, Jesús Vizcaíno Medina and Fidel Roberto García, as well as guards such as José de Jesús Carlos Cortes Ortiz, alias “El Pollo,” and José Barajas, alias “El Veneno.” All of them were corrupt from their heads to their toes. It was through them that El Chapo ruled in prison, freely handing out money or punches. With the help of El Licenciado, the supposedly maximum-security facility became a recreation center for El Chapo.
According to the investigation that followed El Chapo’s escape from the Puente Grande prison, El Licenciado, with the complicity of the prison’s director, Leonardo Beltrán, was in charge of the logistics, which meant that Guzmán and his friends Héctor Salazar and Arturo Martínez Herrera could have access to cellphones, prostitutes, sexual performance enhancement drugs, cocaine, music shows, and food from top restaurants in Guadalajara. Among those who gave evidence to the attorney general about the work López Núñez did for El Chapo was one of the drug boss’s lovers, prison cook Ives Eréndira Moreno Arriola.
El Licenciado exerted control over the distribution of bribes and threats. Those guards and prisoners who were not disposed to serve Guzmán were reprimanded. One guard, Juan José Pérez Díaz, said to the Mexican attorney general after El Chapo’s escape in 2001 that when he started working in the prison, he got a proposal to allow banned items into the prison, and appealed to the vice director for support.
“I want to resign,” the guard said, using the small amount of power he had to bargain with.
“You can’t. You are the commander of the company. If you resign, these people can order retaliation. It is better not to get in their bad books,” López Núñez recommended.
SEE ALSO: Profile of “El Licenciado”
Nor were the inmates themselves safe. José Adrián Espinoza Ramírez made a complaint against Beltrán Santana and Dámaso López Núñez to the Jalisco Human Rights Commission. He accused them of corruption and claimed that the pressure he suffered from them caused him harm. According to him, the death threats his family received were the reason his wife had demanded a divorce. He also blamed them for the suicide of prisoners Raúl René Chirinos Castro and José Manuel Pérez Yáñez, after they were subjected to extortion and psychological and physical torture. After his complaint, Espinoza Ramirez was found dead in prison.
Four months before the escape, López Núñez resigned from his role as vice director, but carried on visiting Guzmán Loera in prison. The last visit was made 10 days before El Chapo escaped from his cell.
By the time El Chapo escaped from prison, Dámaso López Núñez was already his right hand man. With the same efficiency that he employed to control the prison, he began to take charge of important drug trafficking operations, and to coordinate groups of hired killers at Guzmán Loera’s service.
El Vincentillo’s Confessions
“I got to know Dámaso personally in about 2003, but I had already heard of him a long time before that,” Vicente Zambada Niebla, alias “El Vincentillo,” told the US government. Vicente is the son of Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” who was arrested in 2009 and extradited to the United States.
For this report, Agência Pública has obtained previously unseen confessions made by Zambada Niebla as part of a deal with the US government to reduce his sentence. These declarations were made between 2011 and 2012, and helped the US government to discover the role that López Núñez had played in the Sinaloa cartel, and to find out other codenames he used, such as “El Lic” and “Belisardo.”
Zambada Niebla said that Dámaso negotiated with Colombian cocaine suppliers in the name of his father and El Chapo.
“Dámaso was responsible for co-ordinating with the Colombians the shipments of cocaine which arrived by boat and submarine from Colombia, and the boats that went from Mexico with the payments for cocaine received,” he said. “I knew, through conversations with my father, and with Chapo and Dámaso, that Dámaso regularly coordinated the receipt of multiple tons of Colombian cocaine between 2003 and 2009. I knew that most of this cocaine was to be distributed in the United States.”
He gave details of his own work. In 2008, El Mayo and El Chapo negotiated with Colombian suppliers the purchase of about 20 tons of cocaine. For this operation, Dámaso depended on a cartel known as Capi Beto to get hold of two boats with hidden compartments in order to cross the Panama Canal.
“Apart from this, Dámaso sent two other boats across the canal off his own back,” Zambada Niebla said.
The shipment was received in the ocean and transferred to smaller boats. Dámaso coordinated those boats which arrived close to the coast of Sinaloa, and once they were there, coordinated with another operator known as Colas to transport the 20 tons cocaine in smaller crafts. These crafts arrived in an isolated spot in Sinaloa, and henchmen working for El Mayo and El Chapo, along with a man known as “Keta,” kept hold of a portion of the cocaine in safe houses in Culiacán and the surrounding area.
Another practice Dámaso used to transport cocaine between Colombia and Mexico was agricultural planes. Zambada Niebla said that these aircraft could transport nearly half a ton of cocaine (400 kilograms). For these operations, Dámaso had “infrastructure” in Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
“Apart from his duties transporting drugs, Dámaso also had a team of armed men who fought against Beltrán Leyva, the Zetas, and other enemies of the Sinaloa Cartel,” El Vincentillo stated.
After El Vincentillo’s confession in 2013, the US government denounced López Núñez for the first time as a key player in the Sinaloa cartel.
The El Chapo Era
During the years that he was on the run, from 2001 to 2014, Joaquín Guzmán Loera became the most powerful drug trafficker in the world, according to the extensive criminal case opened against him in a US federal court in New York, where the kingpin faces at least 17 accusations of crimes committed between 1989 and 2014, including the trafficking of hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine to the United States; the illegal use of guns; and money laundering, among others.
According to the US investigation, Guzmán Loera built his international trafficking empire over the course of 30 years due to five main factors. The first was the alliance made at the end of the 1970s between the Guadalajara Cartel, which later became the Sinaloa Cartel, and the then-powerful Colombian cartels, especially the Medellín cartel run by Pablo Escobar.
At first, Mexico functioned like a trampoline to send millions of tons of cocaine to the United States, mainly Miami and New York.
“Along with the proliferation of drugs in our communities, an avalanche of violence and crime arrived,” said one prosecutor.
Mexican drug traffickers, who until then had only been active in the heroin and marijuana businesses, used the same routes to help the Colombians transport the white powder. Guzmán Loera gained the trust of the Colombians for his drug trafficking abilities, and for delivering profits in record time.
“This effectiveness earned him the nickname El Rapido,” reads a memorandum filed by prosecutors in New York. “While protected from law enforcement, Guzman began the process of not only adapting his method of operation but also of reshaping what would become the modern Sinaloa Cartel, in part through the strengthening of his alliances and partnerships with other Mexican traffickers,” such as El Mayo, the other Sinaloa cartel boss, who is still a fugitive from justice.
The second factor was that, when the power of the Colombian cartels started to decline, Guzmán Loera’s Sinaloa cartel was no longer just a transporter of cocaine from Mexico to the United States, but also directly controlled the sale of drugs in major US cities, taking over territory from Colombian cartels and doubling their profits.
“Guzman used this wealth to increase his power and the Sinaloa Cartel’s footprint in the drug trafficking world. Within Mexico, Guzman expanded his control of its Atlantic and Pacific ports. He also expanded his control of border towns not only between the United States/Mexico border but also between the Mexico/Guatemala border. Guzman and members of the Sinaloa Cartel infiltrated other Central American countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama,” the memorandum reads.
The third factor was the alliances that Guzmán Loera and his criminal organization made with other Mexican cartels, building a “federation” which came to dominate the border with the United States. He managed to eliminate the Colombian cartels completely from the criminal chain, establishing direct contact with cocaine producers in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. In this way, he managed to control the whole business, from production to point of sale.
Thanks to El Vincentillo, we now know that Dámaso López Núñez was a key part of these operations.
Guzmán Loera was capable of adapting to changes in the market and transformed the Sinaloa Cartel into the main methamphetamine producer in the world, establishing relationships with precursor chemical producers in Asia and Africa.
This was the fourth factor. The fifth, definitive for the building of his criminal empire, was corruption of the authorities. According to the memorandum, as he increased his international presence, Guzmán Loera consolidated his power in Mexico through the corruption of officials “at every level of local, municipal, state, national and foreign government,” to whom he paid multi-million dollar bribes. The court documents state that these payments guaranteed the drug shipments would be received safely in Mexico and the tons of cocaine would be escorted directly by Mexican government officials until they arrived safely at the border with the United States.
In the criminal accusation against Guzmán Loera, the US government recognizes for the first time that throughout the last 10 years during what was known as the “war on drugs,” the Sinaloa Cartel was supported by various Mexican government institutions. And in the middle of a dispute for territory between cartels, this one was not pursued and ended up with much of the territory of the others.
With all this power and corruption, it became obvious to the United States that the Mexican government was incapable of maintaining Guzmán Loera behind bars. According to the memorandum, his last escape in July 2015 “exemplified the power of Guzman’s drug empire and his control over government officials, even while he was incarcerated.”
Betrayal and War
When Joaquín Guzmán Loera was recaptured by the Mexican government in February 2014 in an operation coordinated by the DEA in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, instead of handing over the reigns of the cartel to family members, he preferred to put his trust in El Licenciado. Internal sources from within the organization said that El Chapo considered his sons Iván and Alfredo still not ready to take over operations, though they had participated in the criminal organization from a young age. He considered them to be immature, and didn’t like the indiscreet life they led, replete with luxury goods and countless women, all displayed on social networks. Dámaso López Núñez had a far more discreet profile, and was well-known by drug suppliers and buyers alike.
In 2014, their father’s decision was respected by Iván and Alfredo, and El Licenciado diligently looked after El Chapo’s interests in the cartel, accumulating more power. In 2016, things changed dramatically, after the January recapture of Guzmán Loera in Los Mochis in Sinaloa, and the extradition request from the United States, which heralded the end of Guzmán Loera’s reign.
After the first few months of El Chapo’s imprisonment, his sons realized for the first time that their father was losing power. The pressure exerted on Mexico by the United States made it clear that this time his stay in prison wasn’t going to be a vacation. In February 2016, El Chapo’s wife Emma Coronel Aispuro, an ex-beauty queen who got together with him in 2007, was obliged to leave behind the traditional anonymity and conceded an exclusive interview to the author of this report to denounce the supposed “torture” that her husband was suffering in prison. At the end of 2016, she made an official complaint with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights arguing that, owing to physical and psychological torture, her husband was losing his mind and having hallucinations in prison.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile
It is believed that Ivean and Alfredo started the dispute for power with Dámaso López Núñez and tried to claim money and assets, asserting that they belonged to their father, in addition to demanding a position in the cartel’s drug business. El Licenciado would not concede, and seeing El Chapo’s obvious weakness, got together with other relatives and enemies of Guzmán Loera to start an internal war to remove him from power. To do this, he allied himself with Alfredo Beltrán Guzmán, El Chapo’s nephew as well as the son of Alfredo Beltrán Leyva.
Dámaso also allied himself with Fausto Isidro Meza, the remaining leader of the Beltrán Leyva Organization, and with the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG), led by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho.” Together, they ended El Chapo’s era.
The first public indication of the battle for power was the June 2016 attack on the house of El Chapo’s mother, Consuelo Loera, in the La Tuna community in Badiraguato, Sinaloa. An armed group headed directly by Alfredito invaded the house and emptied it while Consuelo was present. It was an act which broke the limits even of the violent Mexican cartels.
Up until that point, the Guzmán Loera family believed the betrayal had only come from Alfredito, and didn’t suspect Dámaso López Núñez at all. For his part, López Núñez waged a war that went far beyond an exchange of fire. To create suspicion in the cartel about Iván and Alfredo, he ordered the creation of blogs, Facebook accounts and websites accusing them of selling off the Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for their father’s protection. He gave them the nickname “los sapitos” (“the snitches”).
Following two days of battle in the mountains of Sinaloa, in August 2016 Iván and Alfredo Guzmán Salazar were kidnapped from a fashionable restaurant in Puerta Vallarta in the state of Jalisco. Initially, the Mexican government said the CJNG were to blame, but it is believed that El Licenciado was really behind it, as only a boss at the top level could have known the movements of the El Chapo’s offspring.
A week later, El Chapo’s sons were freed thanks to the intervention of El Mayo, who — faced with the imminent fall of his friend and associate — maintained a neutral position, guaranteeing the succession of Dámaso López Núñez over Guzmán Loera.
For the DEA, Joaquín Guzmán Loera’s extradition marked the end of his era and the beginning of the El Licenciado era, a boss considered more violent and radical than his predecessor. Allied with other Mexican cartels, El Licenciado has tried to revive the drug trafficking federation established by El Chapo that turned him into the most important drug trafficker of all time.
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of Agência Pública. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Portuguese original here. Translation by Beth McLoughlin.