The son of "El Chapo" Guzman's right-hand man surrendered to US authorities on Wednesday, but the balance of power within the cartel remains unclear.
Damaso Lopez Serrano, the son of one of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's main henchmen and a competitor for control of the Sinaloa cartel, crossed the border and turned himself into US authorities on Wednesday.
Lopez Serrano reportedly crossed from Mexicali in Mexico's Baja California state to Calexico in California, where he surrendered to the Customs and Border Patrol on Wednesday morning and was turned over to agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration on Thursday afternoon.
"What we know is that he handed himself over yesterday (Wednesday). The case is now with authorities over there," a Mexican security official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, told Reuters.
Lopez Serrano is the son of Damaso Lopez Nuñez, aka "El Licenciado," a nickname typically given to holders of law degrees in Mexico. Lopez Nuñez, a former security official who also held several jobs in the Sinaloa state government, was a close deputy of Guzman, reportedly helping the cartel chief escape from a prison where he worked in 2001.
His role in the escape burnished Lopez Nuñez's status in the cartel, elevating him to the upper echelons of the organization, according to Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA. Lopez Nuñez's role in the government also underscored what many saw as the state's complicity in the Sinaloa cartel's rise to power.
In the wake of Guzman's arrest in January 2016, the Lopezes became one faction in a fight to assume control of the Sinaloa cartel — a fight that has intensified since Guzman's extradition in January this year.
They reportedly joined forces with the Jalisco New Generation cartel, vying with a faction led by Guzman's sons, called the Chapitos, and with another led by members of the Beltran Leyva Organization, a one-time ally of the Sinaloa cartel. Guzman's brother, Aureliano "El Guano" Guzman, appears to be in the mix as well.
Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, Guzman's partner and a cofounder of the Sinaloa cartel, is still involved in the cartel and is reportedly working with Guzman's sons, though reports also indicate he is in poor health and not directly involved in cartel operations.
The strategy of the Lopezes — the younger one nicknamed "El Mini Lic" — included cyber warfare, according to Televisa, using bots and contacting hackers. The latter move proved to be the elder Lopez's undoing, as the hacker contacted authorities and eventually helped them arrest him in Mexico City at the beginning of May.
Over the first half of this year, Sinaloa state saw 879 homicides compared to 524 over the same period last year, according to government data. (Though that data may undercount the number of killings.) The violence in the state seems to have intensified in the weeks since Lopez Nuñez's arrest. During the first weekend of July, there were at least 30 killings — victims' relatives allege that one incident involved the extrajudicial killing of 17 suspected criminals.
Lopez Serrano got an early start in the Sinaloa cartel, reportedly leading Los Antrax, an armed faction of the cartel made up of young members. Much like Chapo's sons, he appears to have documented his wealth and exploits on social media. Though, like the Guzmans, its not clear if the accounts attributed to him are actually his.
Lopez Serrano also has an apprehension order against him issued by the District Court for Southern California in October 2016, and it appears that recent developments on the ground in Mexico may have prompted him to surrender.
"The reason for surrender is he was being hunted by the Sinaloa cartel and 'El Chapo's sons [because of] his father's attempt to take over the cartel," Vigil told Business Insider. In addition to Lopez Nuñez's partnership with the Jalisco New Generation cartel, the elder Lopez was also accused of orchestrating an ambush on Zambada and Guzman's sons in February that killed several of their body guards.
Media in Sinaloa state, where Zambada, the Guzmans, the Lopezes are all from, have reported that Zambada may have been after Lopez Serrano and threatened him. Regarded as a "spoiled narco brat who never got his hands dirty," Vigil said, Lopez Serrano was likely unable to protect himself by forging a partnership with the CJNG or by marshaling the armed force established by his father, prompting him to surrender.
Some reports indicate Lopez Serrano spent several days in a rural area near Mexicali before crossing the border to surrender. According to Televisa, Mexican authorities believe he did so in order to negotiate or to act as a protected witness. Vice News, citing sources with the Mexican defense secretariat's second military region, reported that Lopez Serrano requested protection from the US government.
US officials are likely to look to Lopez Serrano for information on his father's associates and the dealings of his cartel, Vigil said. He may also be called to take part in the trial of Guzman, which is slated to start in April 2018 in the Eastern District of New York.
The balance of power within the cartel remains unclear — though, according to El País, Lopez Serrano's surrender appears to clear the way for Zambada, despite his purported frailty, to assume full control of the cartel he helped found and in which he has long been a partner.
"The leaders — under whatever circumstances — have always been Guzman Loera and Zambada Garcia," local crime analyst Alejandro Sicairos told El País. "And while one of the two lives, he will continue operating with the same force."
Even if that is the case, the Sinaloa cartel will still be under pressure not only from the government, but from its new chief rival, the ascendant Jalisco New Generation cartel.
The CJNG is contesting Sinaloa's control of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, both valuable smuggling territories on the US border.
The group is also adding to the bloodshed in areas where Sinaloa has long been dominant, including Guerrero and Sinaloa states. In the latter, security officials have admitted that police are underequipped and ill-prepared to deal with the rising narco violence.
Lopez Nuñez remains in custody in Mexico, held in the same jail Guzman occupied before he was extradited. Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong has said Mexico is not considering extraditing him because he could be a valuable source of information regarding the Sinaloa cartel.
Lopez Nuñez himself appears disposed to extradition however, reportedly saying he would prefer making a deal with US authorities to potentially being killed in a Mexican jail.