A prominent leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and former right-hand man to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has been arrested in Mexico City, raising questions as to what led to his capture and what’s next for a formidable drug trafficking organization in decline.
Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República – PGR) announced the arrest of Dámaso López Núñez, alias “El Lic” or “Licenciado,” via Twitter on the morning of May 2. Licenciado became one of the most visible faces of the cartel following the arrest of Sinaloa boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in January 2016, who was extradited to the United States in January.
The United States has also requested that Licenciado be extradited following his arrest, according to Mexico’s PGR.
— PGR México (@PGR_mx) May 2, 2017
Preliminary reports say Licenciado was arrested in the upscale neighborhood of Anzures in Mexico City by members of the PGR’s criminal investigations unit and the Secretary of Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional – SEDENA). Licenciado, whom the US Treasury Department designated to its drug “kingpin” list in 2013, was seen eating at a restaurant in a video disseminated by an El Universal journalist, published just days before his arrest.
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Licenciado’s capture in Mexico City — and his apparent willingness to be seen in public — suggests he felt he had sufficient protection within either political or law enforcement circles, or both. He is the son of a former attorney general for the state of Culiacán and is himself a former prison official. Indeed, Licenciado first met El Chapo in the late 1990s as a top official at Puente Grande penitentiary, which he helped turned into a mini-fiefdom for the detained drug lord before helping him make his first jail break in 2001. After his capture in 2014, Chapo is said to have passed over his children in handing the reins of the cartel to Licenciado.
But Licenciado reportedly had a falling-out with Chapo’s sons after Guzmán was recaptured in 2016, and is now believed to be allied with other Sinaloa factions against Chapo’s family. Licenciado is suspected of being behind the ransacking of Chapo’s mother’s house last June, as well as the kidnapping of Chapo’s sons in August.
Whether this rivalry played a role in Licenciado’s arrest is not yet known. But the Sinaloa Cartel, and Chapo in particular, has proven adept at corrupting state officials and at times using that power to attack friends-turned-rivals. It’s also noteworthy that Licenciado’s arrest coincided with the release of one of Chapo’s brothers from a maximum-security facility, where he served over 11 years for money laundering.
In any event, Licenciado’s arrest leaves the Sinaloa Cartel further weakened. In addition to internal divisions, it is facing challenges from the rising Jalisco Cartel – New Generation and is suffering from a lack of experienced leadership. The last remaining leader from the cartel’s old guard, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, is reportedly sick and is likely out of the picture, leaving the organization in the hands of a new generation that has not yet proven it can navigate Mexico’s criminal landscape with the same deftness as its predecessors.
And the obstacles this new generation faces are much greater, given the fragmentation of the country’s large cartels and the plethora of new criminal structures that have arisen in their wake. The PGR recently stated there are some 45 criminal organizations operating in Mexico, nine of which are large groups while the rest are made up of splinter cells and gangs.
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