Former Mexico Official, Now Top Sinaloa Cartel Operative?

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An ex-government employee who reportedly helped free the former leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman from prison over a decade ago has now allegedly replaced the drug lord atop the cartel.

In 2001, Damaso Lopez Nunez, alias “El Licenciado,” assisted Chapo Guzman escape from Puente Grande prison in the state of Jalisco. Lopez had previously served as the sub-director of security at the prison, reported El Universal. Since the prison break, Lopez — who also held various government positions in Mexico prior to his resignation in 2000 — has clawed his way up to the upper echelons of the cartel’s leadership structure, according to El Universal.

In January 2013, the US Treasury Department put Lopez on its “kingpin” list for his key role in the Sinaloa Cartel’s transnational drug trafficking operations. According to a media report from June of last year, Chapo Guzman named Lopez as his successor after being captured in February 2014.

Lopez is not currently facing criminal charges in Mexico, although he is wanted in the United States on charges of money laundering and trafficking cocaine, according to El Universal. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite Lopez’s designation to the US Treasury kingpin list in 2013, it is questionable the alleged drug trafficker is now the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. The drug trafficking group operates more as a confederation of criminal organizations than as a centralized hierarchy, and Lopez is probably just one leader among several within the organization. Indeed, several names have popped up as Chapo Guzman’s potential heir apparent since his arrest, including at least one virtual unknown. Longtime Sinaloa operative Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo” likely retains an active leadership role and oversees a significant amount of the cartel’s drug trafficking operations, as suggested in a recent indictment by the Southern District court in California against El Mayo and sixty other members of the cartel.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Sinaloa Cartel

Nevertheless, Lopez’ career as a government employee — including a position in the prosecutor’s office in Sinaloa — before joining the Sinaloa Cartel, underscores the influence criminal groups can have in corrupting Mexican state institutions. A more recent case in December 2014 saw the criminal gang Guerreros Unidos arming local police forces in Guerrero. The Guerreros Unidos are considered responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of 43 university students in September of last year, a scandal which has had both national and international repercussions.

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