MEXICO CITY — One of the successors to captured drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested in a high-rise tower in a wealthy neighborhood here on Tuesday morning, in another blow to a drug-running cartel that has been fighting to maintain its dominance.
Damaso Lopez, a leader of the Sinaloa cartel and considered the right-hand man to Guzmán before the drug lord’s extradition to New York earlier this year, was hauled out of the apartment building by masked Mexican soldiers.
While the high-profile arrest is a win for the Mexican government, it could also lead to further clashes between members of the Sinaloa cartel or between its members and outside rivals who want to seize power. Some drug war experts consider that competition, as well as the rise of the powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel, major factors in the steep increase in violence in Mexico over the past two years.
Lopez, 51, known as “El Licenciado” — a term for college graduates — worked at Guzmán’s side for years and helped him escape federal prison twice, the last time in 2015, through a mile-long tunnel out of Mexic’s highest-security prison. Earlier in his career, Lopez had been a policeman and a top official at the Puente Grande prison, where he helped Guzmán make his first escape in 2001.
Since Guzmán’s re-capture last year and subsequent extradition on drug-trafficking charges, experts say, the Sinaloa cartel has been led by Ismael Zambada García, known as “El Mayo,” as well as by famed drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, one of Guzmán’s sons and Lopez. Factions of the group have reportedly been fighting for supremacy, including those led by Lopez and Guzmán’s son, Ivan Archivaldo Guzmán.
Some U.S. officials believe that Joaquín Guzmán’s extradition has had a limited effect on violence in Mexico. But other experts consider it a driving force in the recent spike in homicides across the country, in states such as Sinaloa, Colima, Nayarit and Baja California.
With Guzmán in the United States, other drug bosses know that “this time he wasn't going to have an ability to continue to control the Sinaloa cartel from behind bars and he was effectively being removed from the game,” said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego and an expert on drug war violence. “Those rivals and internal contenders say, ‘Now is the time to make my move. Now I’m going to try to take over the routes and the business that was run by Chapo Guzmán.’ ”
After a decline in homicides during the first two years of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, killings rose in 2015 and 2016 and now are at levels approaching the height of the drug war. Mexican authorities reported more than 22,900 murders last year, up from 18,650 the year before.
The raid by Mexican soldiers to capture Lopez took place around 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday in the Anzures neighborhood, a quiet and wealthy enclave in the capital. Lopez, who has salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache, was escorted along with a woman from a luxury building called the “Hares,” wearing a black windbreaker and a white T-shirt. A second operation on Tuesday nabbed one of Lopez’s alleged financiers, Victor González Sepúlveda, outside of Mexico City, officials said.
Some security experts question the Mexican government’s strategy of targeting drug “kingpins,” which has fractured big cartels but also helped create scores of smaller drug-trafficking groups battling for territory.
“The only thing that this [type of arrest] causes inside a drug-trafficking organization is more violence,” said Martin Barron Cruz, a criminology professor in Mexico City. “This will not mean the demise of the Sinaloa cartel, which I have called the ‘cartel of a thousand heads.’ They have a tremendous capacity to mutate, changing to conform to the current situation and blows from the authorities.”
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.