Inside the Game of Thrones-style war to replace El Chapo in the Sinaloa Cartel
The sight of masked federal agents frog-marching Dámaso López Nuñez out of an upscale apartment block in Mexico City on Tuesday morning prompted backslapping within the Mexican government. But the celebration couldn’t mask the degree of trepidation that clouded the arrest.
The capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s former right-hand man was the latest major blow to the Sinaloa drug cartel, which has been in a state of upheaval since Guzmán’s capture in January 2016. But observers fear it will have significant blowback, resulting in an intensification of the already bloody dispute over this multibillion-dollar criminal empire.
The mixture of excitement and dread was evident in the comments given by Mexico’s president and top drug war general. While President Enrique Peña Nieto applauded “the detention of another key objective in the battle against crime,” Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos struck a more cautious tone, warning that rising violence in Sinaloa state “could be sustained by the power struggle” to come.
With rival clans committing ambushes, abductions, and betrayals, the fight for Guzmán’s legacy has come to resemble a gangland “Game of Thrones.” Now that López, his apparent successor, is out of the picture, the conflict looks set to drag on.
Known as “El Licenciado,” a term for university graduates, 51-year-old López allegedly amassed great wealth and power while working alongside Guzmán, before turning against his family. He faces drug trafficking and money-laundering charges, plus a provisional extradition request from the U.S. government.
“Dámaso is a very important Sinaloa operative,” José Reveles, a journalist and author of a book on Guzmán, told VICE News. “He and his son run the finances, but they also have strong influence over the cartel’s armed wing. They even have a private army called Dámaso’s Special Forces, with their own insignia and uniforms.”
López became one of Guzmán’s most trusted lieutenants after allegedly aiding his first prison break from the maximum-security Puente Grande in 2001.
As the prison’s deputy director, he gave Guzmán access to cellphones, drugs, Viagra, prostitutes, and restaurant food. After escaping, supposedly by hiding in a laundry basket, Guzmán showed his gratitude by becoming godfather to López’s son, Dámaso López Serrano.
Over the next 13 years, Guzmán won a series of ferocious turf wars against rivals and former allies. He was eventually recaptured at a hotel in Mazatlán in 2014, but he escaped again the following year, this time by riding a motorbike through an elaborate tunnel.
Guzmán was recaptured again last year, months after granting an interview to Sean Penn at a jungle hideout. He was extradited to New York in January. He is now being held in isolation in Manhattan’s high-security Metropolitan Correctional Center and faces a pretrial hearing at a federal courtroom in Brooklyn Friday.
Sensing opportunity, López reportedly made a play for power by allying himself with the remnants of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel and the ascendent Jalisco New Generation Cartel, both former offshoots of Guzmán’s organization. The Beltrán Leyvas sought revenge, having been severely weakened during a savage war with the Sinaloa cartel almost a decade ago, while the newer Jalisco cartel has been rapidly expanding across the country after outgrowing its role as one of Sinaloa’s armed wings.
As Sinaloa descended into civil war, the state’s murder rate surged. There were 344 homicides in the first three months of 2017, up from 246 in the same period last year.
Jorge Kawas, a Mexican security analyst, told VICE News that ambition and opportunism will likely fuel further divisions within the Sinaloa cartel.
“It’s complicated because even though it’s hierarchical, a criminal organization of this size has many parts that do not always have the same interests,” Kawas explained.
“If one of the factions joins the Jalisco New Generation cartel, for example, things could turn even worse,” he added, noting that the Jalisco group has the experience and connections to replace Sinaloa as Mexico’s dominant force.
“Everyone wants his approval. He’s not directly involved in day-to-day affairs anymore but has trusted associates who run things for him.”
The first evidence of an attempted coup against the Guzmán clan came when dozens of gunmen ransacked the home of his elderly mother in the remote mountain town of La Tuna last June. She was reportedly evacuated in a light aircraft, but several villagers were killed in the brazen provocation. The Beltrán Leyvas were deemed responsible.
Two months later, another group of armed men kidnapped Guzmán’s sons Iván and Alfredo at a trendy restaurant in Puerto Vallarta. This time the Jalisco cartel was the prime suspect, but later reports also linked López to the kidnapping.
Both sons were released after negotiations brokered by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a respected elder, whose wealth, influence and ability to evade arrest throughout a five-decade career have earned him the same mythic status as Guzmán. A source familiar with the cartel’s inner workings told VICE News that Zambada has remained neutral throughout the ongoing dispute.
Although nearing retirement, Reveles believes Zambada will have the final say on Guzmán’s successor. “Everyone wants his approval. He’s not directly involved in day-to-day affairs anymore but has trusted associates who run things for him.”
The feud intensified in February, when Guzmán’s sons accused López of leading them into a near-fatal ambush. In a handwritten letter to the Mexican press, they said López called a meeting to resolve their differences. Yet when they arrived, their vehicles came under intense fire. The pair claimed their bodyguards were killed, but they managed to escape into the mountains.
Days later, unidentified assailants shot dead their aunt, Romelia Salazar, in her white Mercedes in Guadalajara. Salazar had been accused of laundering millions of dollars for Guzmán and his sons, suggesting she may have been targeted to hurt them.
López’s obsession with Guzmán’s sons would ultimately prove his downfall.
He had always kept a low profile, but days before his arrest Mexican intelligence sources leaked rare footage of him to Televisa, the nation’s biggest broadcaster.
“I fear that there’s going to be a massacre.”
Shot on a smartphone, the 26-second clip showed a clean-shaven López eating at a seafood restaurant in Mexico City. It was filmed by a hacker he had hired to wage a propaganda war against Guzmán’s sons on social media.
Unfortunately for López, the hacker, now in witness protection, was an informant for U.S. and Mexican intelligence. He handed them the first authentic images of López in almost two decades. And when they were blasted across national television, it reportedly panicked his wife into changing safe houses, inadvertently leading the authorities to the apartment where he was hiding out.
With the cartel leadership once again up for grabs, analysts expect López’s son, an ambitious playboy known as “Mini Lic,” to launch a bid for power.
“He’ll make mistakes because he’s very audacious and reckless,” Reveles predicted. “He shows off a lot on social media with his Maseratis and Mercedes, gold-plated firearms, and big stacks of cash. He thinks he has the world at his feet.”
Similarly, Reveles believes Guzmán’s sons — known as “Los Chapitos” — “have the experience but not the maturity to lead the cartel. They’ve been very spoiled since they were kids. They haven’t had to work to become leaders because they inherited everything.”
With entitled young gangsters fighting for revenge, family honor and unimaginable wealth, Reveles sees no limit to the spiral of violence that lies ahead.
“I fear,” he said, “that there’s going to be a massacre.”
Duncan Tucker is a freelance journalist based in Mexico.