Los Angeles, CALIFORNIA.— “I’m the biggest cooperating witness against [Los Chapitos], because I am the only one that knows them up close,” Dámaso López Serrano, a key Sinaloa Cartel operative and narco junior, told VICE News in an exclusive interview.
The meeting with the 36-year-old, also known as “El Mini Lic,” who is now in witness protection, took place in a small hotel room next to LAX airport. This was the first time López Serrano, who is El Chapo’s godson and a former part of the Sinaloa Cartel elite, spoke out after serving five years in U.S custody.
His biggest fear now is that his former crime family, El Chapo’s sons, collectively known as Los Chapitos, will find out where he is.
López Serrano voluntarily surrendered to U.S. authorities at the Mexicali-Calexico border crossing six months after El Chapo was extradited from Mexico to a prison in Manhattan in 2017. Since he turned himself in, he has been cooperating with U.S authorities to bring his family members and former cartel colleagues to justice.
“When I was young and everything was fine, I never thought I would do this. But do you think they wouldn’t do the same? They would cooperate against me if they had a chance. They tried to kill me and my family,” López Serrano said.
In 2016, when El Chapo was still in a Mexican prison, the family group that he had gathered to take care of his faction of the Sinaloa Cartel was still holding together. It was composed of his four sons Joaquín, Alfredo, Ovidio and Iván; and his compadre and former right-hand man Dámaso López Núñez, “El Licenciado,” or “El Lic.” López Núñez is “Mini-Lic”’s father.
After El Chapo’s extradition, the former kingpin sent out a letter in which he ordered his faction of the cartel to be split in two: One part for his sons, the other for “Mini-Lic” and his father, according to López Serrano’s version of events.
“In that letter he requested that my dad was the head of the cartel. His attorney also reached out to all of us with the same request. And I remember that in that letter he asked my dad to take good care of his sons, to protect them,” López Serrano said.
But Los Chapitos didn’t want protection from López Serrano or his father—quite the opposite. They launched a number of attacks in an attempt to get them out of the way and take control of their part of the organization.
“My dad didn’t want to fight. But they started killing our men and every time we confronted them they denied it all or said that it had been a mistake. Until they killed ‘El Pantera,’ my head of security,” he said.
Esteban Espinoza, the “El Pantera” [“The Panther”], was killed during a gunfight in La Paz, in Baja California, in 2014 when his group was ambushed by a group of armed men allegedly belonging to the Los Chapitos faction, according to news reports from the time.
Then, Los Chapitos were kidnapped.
In August 2016, Iván Archivaldo, the eldest of Chapo’s sons, and the rest of the brothers planned his birthday celebration in an exclusive restaurant in Jalisco. They were waiting for other guests to arrive when a group of armed men turned up, beat them, and kidnapped the brothers. The kidnapping lasted only a few hours, but it was enough to make the news.
"I do know the people who planned it, but I was asked in a WhatsApp group by several people who were fed up with Los Chapitos for what they were doing in Sinaloa. They asked me to investigate if Iván was going to celebrate in Vallarta. OK, I investigated and from then on I didn’t hear anything,” López Serrano said.
“In that Whatsapp group there were people from various organizations: from the Gulf [Cartel], from Mexico City, from Canada, from Guerrero, several of us who in one way or another were enemies of Los Chapitos and we began to discuss the possibility of getting them out of the way. I actually made the decision to bring them all together, but… I do everything my father tells me to do.”
At the time that the Chapitos were kidnapped, their father was behind held in a maximum security prison in Ciudad Juárez after being arrested for a third time in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, along with his bodyguard, Iván Gastélum, who was known as “El Cholo.”
Gastélum was locked in the same prison as Rubén Oseguera, known as “El Menchito.” He’s the son of Nemesio Oseguera “El Mencho,” the leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel [CJNG].
“We really had to negotiate on another level to release them, because if not, they wouldn’t have released them. They picked them up to kill them. That was the idea. It wasn’t for money. It wasn’t for a scare. It was to kill them.”
“If it had been up to me, Los Chapitos would no longer exist,” he told VICE News.
“But the truth is that they are alive because of their father. El Chapo was the one who made the negotiation. Or maybe not a negotiation, but he set an ultimatum. El Menchito was also in prison at the time, so El Chapo asked El Cholo to grab El Menchito and told El Mencho: ‘If you give me my children, I’ll give you yours,’” he said.
A year later, López Serrano rushed to the border to turn himself over to U.S. authorities.
“My dad was the one who made that final decision for me to turn myself in to the U.S.” he said. “He told me he couldn’t sleep anymore for fear of something happening to me and asked me to do the right thing.”.
“El Lic” was already in a U.S. prison after being arrested in Mexico City a year before, and extradited almost immediately.
“Los Chapitos had my dad arrested. The order was to have my dad arrested and to kill me, but luckily I wasn’t at the same place when they busted my dad,” Mini Lic told VICE News.
El Mini Lic served five years in custody and dodged another decade or more after pleading guilty to drug conspiracy charges and agreeing to cooperate with the U.S. authorities to capture Los Chapitos.
The first brother to fall was the youngest, Ovidio Guzmán, known as “El Ratón,” for whom the U.S. was offering a $5 million bounty.
He was finally arrested in January at his state-of-the-art ranch, where he had gathered for a holiday celebration with his three daughters, his wife, and his mother. It was the second attempt to detain him; the first in late 2019 was a public embarrassment for the Mexican government, which was forced to back down after being outgunned and outnumbered by cartel henchmen.
“If [Ovidio] ever goes to trial I’ll be the main witness,” López Serrano told VICE News.
The other Chapitos remain at large.
U.S. federal agents told VICE News that López Serrano signed off as a key witness against Ovidio on a document included in his extradition request. Ovidio’s relatively speedy and unexpected extradition from Mexico took place on Sep. 15, during Mexico’s Independence Day celebrations.
During his first hearing in September before a Chicago federal court, Ovidio pleaded not guilty, a common first move to begin the process of negotiating a reduced sentence. He also told Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman that he suffered from anxiety and depression, that he had a recent stomach operation, and was taking medicine for both. His next hearing was set for November 17.
López Serrano said he wanted to get away from his past life and that he learned his lesson. “It is not worth it, all the hassle, the deaths, even the money. It is not worth your freedom,” he told VICE News.
“But I have to earn a living, so I think I’ll become a security analyst,” he said. “In the end no one knows more than me how the cartels work in Mexico.”
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