In the wake of the recent recapture of the most wanted drug trafficker in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the cartel’s leadership now finds itself at a crossroads.
With Guzman likely to be extradited to the U.S. where he faces multiple indictments in several U.S. cities, experts are speculating who could fill the void of leadership left by the arrest of El Chapo.
The logical candidate to assume an increased leadership role is Guzman’s long time, low-key partner, Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada Garcia, the Sinaloa cartel’s most senior capo.
However, U.S. officials are increasingly focusing attention on a 48-year-old former lawyer and Mexican law enforcement official.
Intelligence analysts indicate Damaso Lopez Nunez, also known as “El Licenciado,” ‘El Lic’ for short, ranks among the upper echelon of leadership in the Sinaloa Federation, which consists of a confederation of separate criminal organizations led by a board that includes ‘Chapo’ Guzman as the chairman.
Internal DEA documents obtained by The Associated Press after Guzman’s Feb 2014 arrest, shows that over the course of El Chapo’s recent imprisonment, the Sinaloa Cartel was controlled by Zambada, along with Damaso López Núñez, “El Lic,” and Guzman’s son Ivan Archivaldo Guzman.
Lopez leads a faction of the Sinaloa organization called Los Damaso. The name “El Licenciado” or “The Bachelor,” derives from his background as a lawyer, which he studied law at the University of Sinaloa.
‘El Lic’ briefly practiced law before going to work for the investigative agency at the Sinaloa Attorney General’s Office in 1991, where he earned a pay of $600 per month.
He was then appointed as the head of security at the Puente Grande Prison in the western state of Jalisco, where he would strike up a close friendship with Joaquin Guzman, who was serving a prison sentence at the time.
It is there, Mexican authorities say Damaso Lopez helped orchestrate Guzman’s first prison escape from the maximum security detention center.
He would resign from his post and go on to become a partner and close confidant of Guzman in the drug trafficking business.
Like Zambada, Lopez keeps a low profile. According to a Jan 2015 report by El Pais, the only published photo of ‘El Lic’ is a 10-year-old blurry image of a man with small eyes, a smooth forehead sporting a goatee.
His son is Damaso Lopez Serano, known as “El Mini Lic,” is the godson to El Chapo, and a young narco celebrity who is active on social media, where he flaunts his luxurious lifestyle on his Instagram and Twitter accounts with thousands of followers.
According to El Pais, Damaso Lopez Nunez maintains a presence in the area around Eldorado, the town where he was born, located on the outskirts of Culiacan. His father was a local tax collector and later became an elected official in Sinaloa.
To the locals of the community, ‘El Lic’ is more than just a top narco-trafficker, he is an authoritative figure who usually remains invisible, but his presence can be felt by the residents.
His men, who dress in Armani caps and Hermés vests, keep a close eye on everyone who comes in and out of the area, taking down license plate numbers and sharing intelligence by phone.
These same men used to go out into the streets on designated days and get trigger happy.
However, under ‘El Lic’ that tradition is no longer allowed, cars are also banned from burning their tires and criminals are banished from the community and sent to live elsewhere.
Javier Valdez, director of the local weekly Ríodoce, explained to El Pais how the Sinaloa leadership structure works, which is a deeply held secret, known only by a few members. “There are several regional chiefs, including as El Chapo’s sons, El Mayo [Ismael Zambada] and El Lic,” said Valdez.
“There are several regional chiefs, including ‘El Chapo’s’ sons, ‘El Mayo’ [Ismael Zambada] and ‘El Lic,'” said Valdez.
“If one of them had tried to take control of everything, there would have been an internal war, and that has not happened. It’s true that El Lic is a very powerful guy.” Valdez added, “He has a strong presence in the region of Eldorado with spies, vehicles that patrol the streets all day. He moves around with ease here, which means he is protected.”
‘El Lic’ has also shown a propensity to unleash violence as a means to expand his operation. He employs a hit team of cartel killers called the Special Forces of Los Damaso, which at one time was headed by a ruthless assassin queen named Melissa Calderone Ojeda, known as “La China.”
Los Damaso fought bloody battles for control of the lucrative smuggling route in the municipality of La Paz in Baja, California Sur against another narco who also goes by the moniker “El Chapo,” Fausto Isidro Meza Flores. He is a member of the Beltran Leyva Cartel viewed as a thorn in the side of the Sinaloa cartel.
El Lic’s assassins also disputed the city of La Paz against rival Sinaloa cells loyal to “El Mayo” Zambada.
In March of 2012, the U.S. Attorney out of District Court of Virginia indicted Lopez Nunez on drug trafficking and money laundering charges along with four other members of the Sinaloa Cartel.
The U.S. Department of State Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned El Lic as a top firgure in the Sinaloa organization under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act), which freezes assets and prohibits U.S. citizens and entities from conducting financial or commercial transactions with a designated drug trafficker.
Reports suggest the aging 68-year-old Zamabada is ready to name his sons as his successors. However, experts believe they don’t have the capacity to maintain power the way their father has over the course of decades, the same goes for Guzman’s son.
It would leave Damaso Lopez Nunez as the capo with the most gravitas capable of commanding the respect needed to take the helm of the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world.