MEXICO CITY (AP) — One of the Sinaloa cartel leaders who launched a struggle for control of the gang following the re-arrest of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was captured Tuesday, Mexican prosecutors said.
The attorney general's office said that soldiers and prosecution agents carried out a morning raid to capture a drug gang leader it called "Damaso N."
A federal official confirmed the suspect is Damaso Lopez, 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.
Lopez, 51, 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 Lopez was "one of the main instigators of violence in Sinaloa and the southern part of Baja California."
The Baja California twin resorts of Los Cabos have been hit by a string of killings, apparently related to disputes between Lopez and other Sinaloa traffickers and the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
Garcia Harfuch also said Lopez was looking to ally himself with another cartel, and that his arrest diminished possibilities of forming that alliance. He did not name the other cartel, but the federal official confirmed that he was looking to ally with the Jalisco cartel, Mexico's fastest-growing drug gang.
Soldiers in full battle gear guarded the entrance of an upscale apartment building on a major boulevard in Mexico City, not far from downtown, where Lopez was arrested.
The soldiers and police later escorted a man who appeared to be Lopez out of the building under heavy guard.
Lopez would not be the first high-level drug suspect from outlying provinces captured in the capital. While Mexico City officials say drug cartels do not control territory in Mexico City, they acknowledge that drug lords have sometimes lived in the city and moved drug shipments through the capital.
The cartels apparently like upscale properties. One of Lopez's alleged lieutenants was arrested Tuesday in Santa Fe, one of Mexico City's most expensive neighborhoods.
Garcia Harfuch said the lieutenant was Lopez' financial and logistics coordinator, and rented properties in Mexico City as hide-outs for his boss.
Lopez was caught with methamphetamines, but apparently no guns. He faces organized crime charges in Mexico, as well as a provisional extradition request from the United States.
With Guzman in jail, the Sinaloa Cartel has been controlled by Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia and Rafael Caro Quintero, two of the most traditional, old-school capos, plus Lopez, and Guzman's sons, Ivan Archivaldo Guzman and Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar.
Guzman was extradited to the United States earlier this year to face drug trafficking, money laundering and other charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
Lopez has been blamed for attacks on Guzman's sons and a supposed attack on Zambada.
The dispute has led to an upsurge in violence in Sinaloa and other states.
"This (arrest) is a big deal because it may stave off an internal war within the Sinaloa cartel," said Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "This could have easily gone into a full-scale war which could have translated into massive casualties and violence in Mexico."
"I would say this is the most significant capture after Chapo Guzman," said Vigil.
But Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said Lopez's arrest probably won't reduce the level of violence, "not in the short term." He said Lopez's son, Damaso Lopez Serrano, would likely seek revenge for his father's arrest. Like Guzman's sons, the younger Lopez — known as the "mini-licenciado" — is known to be violent, flashy and undisciplined.
The newer generation of the Sinaloa cartel has apparently abandoned the relative low profile, discretion and calculated violence of their fathers.
"The only thing they know about the drug business is violence" Vigil noted.
The violence has gotten so bad that in San Jose del Cabo that on Monday, a military patrol was attacked by suspected cartel gunmen, setting off a firefight that killed one marine and seven alleged aggressors.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control described Lopez as Guzman's "right-hand man" and "one of the top lieutenants of the Sinaloa Cartel" in 2013 when it announced U.S. sanctions identifying him as a major international drug trafficker.
In 2011, Lopez was indicted by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, on charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine and conspiring to commit money laundering. He would face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted.