Mexico drug leader, son indicted on US drug charges - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Mexico drug leader, son indicted on US drug charges

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Police guard a gate to the attorney general's office for organized crime as trucks of soldiers arrive, soon after a convoy entered carrying Damaso Lopez in Mexico City, Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) Police guard a gate to the attorney general's office for organized crime as trucks of soldiers arrive, soon after a convoy entered carrying Damaso Lopez in Mexico City, Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A Sinaloa cartel leader and his son have been indicted on drug smuggling charges in the United States in what the Trump administration called a blow to one of Mexico's most powerful drug rings.

The indictment against Damaso Lopez Nunez was unsealed Monday by a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia — the same day his 29-year-old son was also indicted on drug charges in federal court in San Diego.

Damaso Lopez Nunez has been battling for control of the Sinaloa cartel following last year's arrest of billionaire kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who is now facing drug charges in the United States.

Known by the nickname "El Licenciado," a title for college graduates, Lopez was long considered Guzman's right-hand man and helped him escape from a Mexican prison in 2001.

Mexican authorities arrested Lopez in Mexico City in May. Weeks later, his son, Damaso Lopez Serrano, surrendered to U.S. authorities at the California border.

Lopez's son, known as "Mini Lic," made a brief appearance Monday in federal court in San Diego and entered a plea of not guilty before he was ordered to be held without bail. He is believed to be the highest-ranking Mexican cartel member ever to surrender to authorities in the United States.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the indictments show that the U.S. Department of Justice has made going after Mexican cartel leaders a top priority.

"We will continue to go after these cartel leaders in order to dismantle their organizations from top to bottom, and today's announcement should send them a clear message: you can turn yourselves in the easy way, or we will find you and bring you to justice the hard way," Sessions said in a statement.

U.S. officials said they are in the process of seeking the elder Lopez's extradition from Mexico.

The elder Lopez is believed to have been locked in a dispute with Guzman's sons for control of the cartel's territories. The head of Mexico's federal detectives' agency, Omar Garcia Harfuch, said in May that Lopez was "one of the main instigators of violence" in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and the southern part of Baja California.

Lopez's son turned himself in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers on July 27 in Calexico, California, across the border from Mexicali, Mexico, said Adam Braverman, an assistant U.S. attorney.

The indictment, which was filed in August 2016 and ordered unsealed Monday, charges Lopez Serrano with conspiracy to import and distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

Braverman told U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw that the investigation lasted five years and involved intercepts of more than 250 communication devices. In 2015, there were tens of thousands of communication intercepts and "a number of (drug) seizures" in Mexico and the United States.

Lopez Serrano appeared in an orange uniform for jail inmates and said little in court.

His attorney, Michael Littman, entered the not-guilty plea on his client's behalf. Littman declined to comment as he left the courtroom.

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Associated Press writer Julie Watson contributed to this report.

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