SAN DIEGO — When 34-year-old Dámaso López-Serrano had his moment to speak in a United States courtroom last week, he swore he was a changed man.
To hear López-Serrano tell it, he was no longer “Mini Lic,” the son of El Chapo’s former right-hand man in the Sinaloa Cartel, a notoriously petulant narco princeling who helped smuggle literal tons of cocaine, meth, and heroin across the border while plunging Mexico into a downward spiral of murder, corruption, and impunity.
“I know I’m going to be a completely different person than I used to be,” López-Serrano told the court through a Spanish interpreter. “I ask you for an opportunity to start a new life.”
A few moments later, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw granted his wish. Calling his case “extraordinary” and “exceptional,” Sabraw gave López-Serrano “time served” after five years in custody, allowing him to dodge a decade or more in federal prison after pleading guilty to drug conspiracy charges. He was also ordered to forfeit $1 million in drug proceeds.
But the man formerly known as Mini Lic may not walk free just yet.
At the sentencing Friday in San Diego, Sabraw noted López-Serrano is still subject to an “immigration detainer,” meaning he could face deportation to Mexico, which has a pending extradition request for his alleged role as mastermind of the May 15, 2017, assassination of legendary Sinaloan journalist Javier Valdez-Cárdenas. López-Serrano and his father have denied responsibility in the past, alleging they are being framed for the killing by El Chapo’s sons and corrupt Mexican officials, an allegation that some in U.S. law enforcement believe could be the case.
López-Serrano’s attorney declined to comment Friday, and a spokesperson for the Department of Justice told VICE News the U.S. “generally does not confirm, deny, or otherwise comment on the existence or nonexistence of requests for apprehension from foreign governments.”
López-Serrano received leniency in part because he voluntarily surrendered at a California border crossing in August 2017, turning himself in after fleeing a brutal cartel war with El Chapo’s sons that ended with him and his dad on the losing side. His father and namesake, Dámaso López-Nuñez, was eventually extradited to the U.S. and became a cooperating witness against El Chapo, helping prosecutors secure a conviction and life sentence for his former boss.
Sabraw said Friday that the junior Dámaso, who court records say is El Chapo’s godson, was also prepared to testify against his godfather but was not called to take the stand. Sabraw suggested he has nevertheless been a valuable asset for U.S. authorities.
“It is difficult to overstate your involvement in the cartel at the highest levels—you were a manager, a leader, you had your own cell,” Sabraw said, adding: “You have debriefed extensively. The level of cooperation is extraordinary. You placed yourself in harm’s way.”
A warning, and then a vicious murder
The bloody power struggle that followed El Chapo’s extradition to New York in January 2017 was the focus of several columns by Valdez-Cárdenas in RioDoce, a weekly newspaper he co-founded that is renowned for fearless and insightful coverage of organized crime. Burly, profane, and unflinchingly honest, Valdez-Cárdenas was a beloved figure among both local readers and foreign correspondents, eternally clad in a Panama hat and often found perched atop a stool at his favorite local cantina.
A recipient of The Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, Valdez-Cárdenas had continued his work even after someone lobbed a grenade into the newspaper’s offices in Sinaloa’s capital Culiacán.
Prior to his murder, Valdez-Cárdenas had been speaking to sources on both sides in the feud between El Chapo’s sons, known as Los Chapitos, and Mini Lic (pronounced “leak” and short for Licenciado or “The Graduate,” which is his father’s nickname.)
In February 2017, Valdez-Cárdenas interviewed an anonymous source who used the nickname Licenciado, who denied responsibility for an ambush against Los Chapitos while also complaining that the sons were acting out of line and not honoring their father’s deals.
When Los Chapitos sons got wind of the story, an intermediary contacted Valdez-Cárdenas and ordered RioDoce not to publish it. Not one to be silenced, he went ahead anyway—but cartel gunmen followed around delivery vehicles, snatching up every copy from the local newsstands. A version went up online the next day.
A few months later, Valdez-Cárdenas published a column with some harsh descriptions of Mini Lic, who had a reputation for being spoiled and living off his father’s wealth and power.
“They say he’s good for chatting but not business,” the column read. “He only drinks the honey that his father sows and harvests—or used to harvest… a narco who pays for ballads to be written about him, a weekend gunman with a prop pistol.”
Eight days later, Valdez-Cárdenas was gunned down in the street not far from his office. He was shot 12 times, which some have interpreted as a symbolic middle finger directed at RioDoce, which means River 12, a reference to Sinaloa’s waterways and the free flow of information.
The wrong path
The slaying prompted an international outcry and pleas to find the killers. Justice is a rarity in murders of journalists across Mexico, which usually go unsolved.
The situation remains grim today. More than 150 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, according to Reporters Without Borders, including at least 14 already in 2022—the most ever recorded in a single year.
On Saturday, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office issued a statement saying they had obtained a Red Notice arrest warrant from INTERPOL for “Dámaso ‘L’,” as the “presumed intellectual author” of Valdez-Cárdenas’ assassination. (Mexican authorities don’t publicly identify suspects by their full names.) The statement urged the U.S. Department of Justice to hand the suspect over for prosecution “as quickly as possible.”
Two of the killers, said to be from López-Serrano’s faction of the Sinaloa Cartel, have been convicted in Mexican courts. A third suspect was found murdered in 2018. The assassins were reportedly rewarded with a silver-plated pistol with Mini Lic and his dad’s faces on the handle.
López-Serrano was not charged in the U.S. with the Valdez-Cárdenas murder—he only pleaded guilty to drug crimes. During his brief speech on Friday, he made no mention of the slain journalist. He wore a khaki prison jumpsuit, his face mostly hidden behind a blue surgical mask. He looked young, with a fresh haircut and spiky jet black hair.
“I only want to offer an apology to all those people I harmed so much through my actions,” López-Serrano said. “I did wrong and acknowledge it. I was wrong to choose that path.”
He also alluded to the violence that tore apart Sinaloa, with El Chapo’s sons reportedly carrying out a vendetta against his family. López-Serrano’s father, serving a life sentence, is believed to be under protective custody. According to testimony from El Chapo’s trial, some of their family members were brought to the U.S. for protection.
“I have suffered the loss of many relatives and friends,” López-Serrano said Friday. “I have been through difficult and painful moments, but my family was there with me through them.”
The case against Los Chapitos
In January 2019, while Mini Lic’s father, López-Nuñez, was testifying against El Chapo, he was asked on cross-examination about his son’s alleged role in the Valdez-Cárdenas murder. The elder Dámaso claimed the narrative presented by the Mexican government is false.
“My son and I are innocent of this man's murder,” López-Nuñez said. “He disobeyed the threatening orders that my compadre's sons had actually given him and that's why he got killed. And just because my compadre's sons were colluding with the government.”
The only response from López-Serrano himself came in January 2020, after a Mexican judge issued an arrest warrant, when he put out a statement through his attorneys.
“These accusations are unfounded and reckless,” he said. “I had no participation or role in the death of journalist Javier Valdez-Cárdenas. I am certain I can prove my innocence, but I fear this accusation is totally manipulated to affect me and intended to extradite me to Mexico.”
One source familiar with the case told VICE News there is evidence that has not been made public linking El Chapo’s eldest son, Iván Archivaldo Guzmán, to the order to kill Valdez-Cárdenas. Several law enforcement officials declined to speak on the record, but were privately adamant Mini Lic had been set up as the fall guy by Los Chapitos, with one saying his father would not have been allowed to testify if prosecutors felt he would lie about it under oath.
Even so, several people with knowledge of Mini Lic’s past were uneasy with the prospect that he might walk free in the United States. He was known to relish violence, one source said, personally participating in killings and torture.
“I just hope he is not set loose on the streets of America,” said one law enforcement source. “He is a violent psychopath.”
At the hearing Friday in San Diego, López-Serrano’s attorney Matthew Lombard insisted his client’s cartel days were long behind him.
“I would say over the past several years, Mr. López-Serrano has demonstrated remorse for his past actions and has shown a remarkable ability to atone for his mistakes,” Lombard said. “I don’t think the court will see him again.”
A widow’s plea
López-Serrano first changed his plea to guilty in 2018, and according to a transcript of that court hearing reviewed by VICE News, the judge warned him a conviction would “make it practically inevitable and a virtual certainty that you will be removed or deported from the United States.”
However, there is no guarantee that López-Serrano will ever be sent back to Mexico. While his immigration detainer means he may still be in government custody, he could argue that being sent home would violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture on the grounds that El Chapo’s sons and corrupt Mexican officials would conspire to have him killed. Such proceedings can take months to play out with little transparency.
A similar situation recently unfolded with the case of Mayito Gordo, the son of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. After receiving a relatively lenient sentence from Judge Sabraw that also amounted to time served, he was on the verge of deportation before disappearing back into federal custody while the courts decide his immigration status.
Extraditions of high-level narco-traffickers have been a point of contention between U.S and Mexican officials under President Andrés Manuel López-Obrador, with his top diplomat calling last year for the process to have “the same speed from there to here as from here to there, something that is not the case right now.”
Ismael Bojórquez, who co-founded RioDoce with Valdez-Cárdenas and remains the chief editor, told VICE News he was angry but not surprised to learn that U.S. authorities are not willing to simply hand over Mini Lic to Mexico, or that the judge was so lenient.
“Mexican narcos have long been walking down this road of offering apologies to the judge for their behavior,” Bojórquez said. “Obviously, they are people who are not going to change. They are criminals, murderers, and drug traffickers, and they are not going to stop. They’re not going to stop doing what they’ve been doing all of their lives.”
Griselda Triana, the widow of Váldez-Cardenas, expressed similar disappointment, calling the outcome of Mini Lic’s case “shameful” and “another victory for criminals like him.”
“He knows he can become a protected witness, keep supplying information to the American authorities, and they will award him these privileges,” she said. “It’s nothing but a mockery.”
Triana called for her husband’s suspected killer to come stand trial in Mexico.
“There is nothing that can repair the pain that this caused to us as a family and to journalism in Mexico and the world,” she said. “Come here to settle his accounts for Javier. It seems to me an act of cowardice for him to say he’s regretful, because these people regret nothing.”
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