A Cartel Hitman Was Just Convicted For Executing a Famous Mexican Journalist

While the alleged mastermind of the murder, Dámaso López Serrano, known as Mini Lic, is behind bars in the U.S., there's hope that he may be extradited to Mexico. He denies his involvement.
June 10, 2021, 7:23pm
Journalists and activists created a shrine to murdered journalist Javier Valdez outside government offices in Mexico City, after he was murdered in the city of Culiacan on May 15, 2017.
Journalists and activists created a shrine to murdered journalist Javier Valdez outside government offices in Mexico City, after he was murdered in the city of Culiacan on May 15, 2017. Agencia EL UNIVERSAL/Valente Rosas/RCC (GDA via AP Images.

MEXICO CITY - Over four years after the murder of prominent Mexican journalist Javier Valdez, who was renowned for his coverage of the country’s drug wars, a court has found a second man guilty for the brutal crime.

On May 15, 2017, gunmen murdered Valdez outside of the offices of his weekly news magazine Ríodoce in Culiacan, Sinaloa. A recipient of The Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, Valdez's murder shocked the nation and led to widespread protests.

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A Mexican federal judge found Juan Francisco Picos Barrueta, alias El Quillo, guilty on Wednesday in Valdez’s murder. Another man, Heriberto Picos Barraza, nicknamed El Koala, was convicted in the killing in 2020. Mexican authorities say that El Koala drove El Quillo and another man named Luis Sánchez, aka El Diablo, to the offices of Ríodoce in downtown Culiacan, where El Quillo and El Diablo shot Valdez on the street outside at around noon on a Monday.

While El Quillo has yet to be sentenced for his recent conviction, El Koala was sentenced to 14 years and eight months for the crime in 2020. El Diablo was killed in the Mexican state of Sonora several months after Valdez's murder.

But questions still remain around the recent convictions and who ordered the murder of one of Mexico's most famous journalists.

The trial in Mexico implicated Dámaso López Serrano, known as Mini Lic, as the intellectual author of the murder. Mini Lic's father, Dámaso López Nuñez, known as El Licenciado, was a top lieutenant for incarcerated kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

But the López lieutenants fell out with their boss and his sons after El Chapo was captured in 2014, escaped in 2016 and was recaptured six months later. 

The elder López had allegedly helped orchestrate El Chapo's escape from the notorious Puente Grande prison in 2001, where El Licenciado worked as a top official. After the escape, El Licenciado joined El Chapo in the Sinaloa Cartel and became a high-ranking operative. Mini Lic joined his father in the Sinaloa Cartel and rose in the ranks.

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In January 2017, Mexico extradited El Chapo to the United States and a war erupted between El Licenciado and El Chapo's sons, Iván, Alfredo, and Ovidio, for control of El Chapo's interests in the Sinaloa Cartel.

Valdez covered the power struggle before his murder later that year.

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Javier Valdez, one of Mexico's most renowned journalists, in Culiacan, Sinaloa in 2015. Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.

Mexican authorities allege that Mini Lic ordered the murder of Valdez in revenge for a column he wrote describing the younger López as just a “weekend gunman” who paled in comparison to his father. The elder López had recently been arrested by Mexican authorities, on May 2. A week after the column, Valdez was killed.

Three months after the murder, Mini Lic fled Mexico, and turned himself in to U.S. authorities. He later pleaded guilty to drug charges. In July 2018, Mexican authorities extradited the elder López to the U.S. where he became a prominent witness for prosecutors in El Chapo's trial, which ended in a conviction and life sentence at a maximum security prison in Colorado, colloquially known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies”.

At the trial, El Licenciado claimed that his son wasn't involved in the murder of Valdez and instead blamed El Chapo's sons, known collectively as Los Chapitos. On the witness stand, the elder López gave a different version of events.

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El Licenciado said that Los Chapitos killed Valdez after he refused their demand not to publish an interview in which El Licenciado had criticized them. 

“(Valdez) disobeyed the orders of (El Chapo)’s sons and that’s why he was killed,” López said at the 2019 trial. “And since my compadre's sons are in collusion with the government, they did not find a culprit and blamed my son.”

In January 2020 a federal judge in Mexico revealed that an arrest warrant had been issued for Mini Lic for Valdez’s murder. At the time, Mini Lic's lawyer issued a statement on his behalf to VICE World News, calling the accusations “unfounded and reckless.”

“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.”

El Licenciado and Mini Lic are believed to have cooperated with U.S. authorities for reduced sentences, and most likely, the ability to remain in the United States. The elder López pleaded guilty to numerous crimes in U.S. court in 2018, but saw his life sentence significantly shortened to 14 years after he cooperated in El Chapo's trial. Mini Lic is set to be sentenced in August 2021.

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Miguel Ángel Vega, a journalist with Ríodoce who also co-hosted VICE’s El Chapo podcast, does not believe the López family’s denials about their involvement in Valdez’s murder. 

“It's understandable. [El Licenciado] is going to protect his son under any circumstances and he's going to blame Los Chapitos, but in the end, they're enemies, they are trying to kill each other,” said Vega. 

“We're talking about the actual facts, the investigation,” he added, referring to the Mexican investigation. “The evidence shows that the killers worked for Mini Lic.”

He believed that “the Mexican government should just extend its arm and get Mini Lic, to bring him to face Mexican justice.”

Neither Mexico's Foreign Relations Ministry nor the Attorney General’s Office responded to questions regarding whether they were pursuing the extradition of Mini Lic for his alleged role in Valdez’s murder.

But the conviction of the hitman, El Quillo, is one step closer to bringing those involved in the murder of Valdez to justice. 

“We were very happy with the judge's ruling when declaring (El Quillo) guilty,” said Ismael Bojórquez, a close friend of Valdez and the founder of Ríodoce. “One always has doubts about what will happen, how it could go wrong. In these circumstances, you don't know, and in the Mexican justice system, even less.”

Mexico is infamous for its low conviction rate. It’s also considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism, and the murders of journalists are rarely solved.

Bojórquez too believed that the state was correct in identifying the killers of Valdez, along with who wanted him dead. He said that he and other journalists at Ríodoce conducted their own investigation apart from the Mexican authorities and came to the same conclusion—Mini Lic ordered the hit on Valdez.

Journalists and activists across Mexico are hopeful that the investigation will continue, and the intellectual author will be brought to justice as well.

“The Javier Valdez trial is a hugely important step forward for both the family of Javier and for Mexican federal authorities, who have shown that if they do actually commit to a specific case, they can actually get convictions, which is something they've hardly done in in the past, say, 20 years,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “But obviously the case is far from over because Mexican federal authorities have identified Dámaso López Serrano, El Mini Lic, as the mastermind of the killing.”

“So it's very important that Mexican authorities pursue extradition and get him tried here.”