Why a Mexican Cartel Capo Turned Himself in to the United States

‘It’s cool to be a narcotrafficker, because you have money, because you have followers, but when someone wants to behead you, you’re going to turn yourself in.’

Notorious cartel leader—and shameless social media showoff—Dámaso López Serrano walked across the U.S. border at California’s Calexico Port of Entry on July 27 and promptly surrendered himself to customs officers. Dámaso, 29, goes by the alias “Mini Lic.” He’s also “believed to be the highest-ranking Mexican cartel leader ever to self-surrender in the U.S.,” according to the Department of Justice.

Dámaso was the leader of one branch of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest crime group. And he was never reluctant to let people know just how insanely rich and powerful he was. Like many of the next-gen cartel leaders who call themselves “narco juniors,” Dámaso was fond of posting pictures of himself with gold-plated firearms, tasteless bling, and beautiful women.

The days of taking selfies with his pet cheetah are over for now, however, since he was arraigned in U.S. federal court this week on multiple indictments for drug charges dating back to 2016.

Sweet Self-Surrender

The Sinaloa cartel split into multiple factions following former kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s arrest and extradition to the United States earlier this year. And the formerly powerful Dámaso wing of the syndicate has had a rough few months.

Mini Lic’s father, Dámaso López Núñez, was captured by Mexican police at a high-rise luxury apartment building in Mexico City back in May. López Núñez, 51, went by the nickname “El Licenciado” (which means “The Graduate,” and was also the genesis for Mini Lic’s handle), and had been Chapo Guzmán’s “man Friday” since helping him escape from prison back in 2001.

Once Chapo was shipped stateside, however, El Licenciado decided to make a play for control of the entire Sinaloa cartel, targeting other factions for takeover, including a kidnap attempt against Chapo’s two sons, known as “Los Chapitos.”

He also sought to align himself with his group’s traditional rival, the Jalisco New Generation cartel (JNGC), in a bid to strengthen his run to power. After the El Licenciado’s arrest in May, the JNGC alliance apparently fell apart, leaving Mini Lic without sufficient resources to resist the forces of the Chapitos and their feared “El Ántrax” hit squad.

“Dámaso López Serrano surrendering to American authorities was definitively a desperate move,” Jésus Pérez, an analyst at UC Global Security Consulting, tells The Daily Beast. “He was in the losing side in the war against Chapo Guzmán’s clan. Even his properties in Sinaloa were burned by the Chapitos.”

Journalist Emmanuel Gallardo, who covers the cartel beat for the Mexican newspaper Sol de Mexico, agrees with Pérez that Mini Lic chose surrender because he knew the game was up.

“He was afraid of being killed,” Gallardo says in a phone call from Mexico City. “In Sinaloa the criminal organizations have control over the whole state. The sons of Chapo really know what they are doing.”

López father and son came to a life of crime relatively late (the elder was a guard at the prison when he helped Chapo escape). But the sons of Chapo—Ivan Archivaldo, 34, and Jesús Alfredo, 32—grew up in the family. Gallardo says this gives them an edge over relative newbies to the game.

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“They were the children of the top traffickers of Mexico,” Gallardo says. “Since the very beginning they were part of the top mafia, since they were babies.”

Jail Betrayal

Mini Lic could end up in a maximum-security prison, as Chapo Gúzman likely will after his trial. Or he might be able to strike a plea bargain agreement, and help prosecutors build their case against his former boss.

“That could be the ultimate revenge,” says Pérez, author of the book Guerras Posmodernas (Postmodern Wars).

Once he made up his mind to surrender, the choice of where to do so must have been an easy one. Mexican prison conditions are infamously unsafe by any standard, and a high-profile inmate like Mini Lic would have been an easy target for his enemies in the cartel.

“Why risk death in a local prison when they will be extradited anyway?” says professor Gustavo Fondevila, a criminology specialist with the University of San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

In fact, Fondevila says a plea bargain might even have been worked out beforehand, perhaps arranged by Mini Lic’s jailed father.

“Surely there was a negotiation with the [U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency] to reduce penalties, preserve capital, and not prosecute the family,” says Fondevila.

For old-school capos, death was better than dishonor. But the narco-juniors operate under another, less austere code.

“Mini Lic is not of the old generation that considers that surrender is the last thing that can be done,” Fondevila says. “He is young and has different values.”

And the process of ratting out his former friends might have already begun. The chief financier of Mini Lic’s outfit, Nahum Sicairos-Montalvo (aka “El Quinceañero”), was found and arrested at home within four days of Serrano turning himself in.

“[Quinceañero] was captured while sleeping in a flat where he kept several computers. No shots fired. A very clean operation,” says Pérez. “So maybe it’s a consequence of Mini Lic surrendering to the American authorities. We can only guess if [he] betrayed him.”

‘A New War is Likely to Be Unleashed’

With Mini Lic and El Licenciado behind bars, the sons of Chapo might be able to unite the different cells and return the Sinaloa cartel to the near monopoly on narco-trafficking it once enjoyed. Otherwise the factional infighting that has helped make 2017 the deadliest year in the nation’s Drug War history, is likely to continue.

“If they do not reach an alliance, a new war is likely to be unleashed,” Fondevila says.

Pérez says even learning to get along might not make a difference.

“Does a possible end to the internal rift inside the Sinaloa cartel take us to less violent times? I don’t think so. The last fall of Chapo Guzmán became a point of no return. Rival drug cartels tasted blood and have targeted Mexican North West plazas [markets]."

As for Mini Lic—who led his private “Special Forces of Dámaso” hit squad, and once started a feud with the sons of El Chapo over who had the better narco ballad written for them—his havoc-wreaking days are now behind him.

Journalist Gallardo describes Serrano as an amateur who got caught up in the drug lord lifestyle—and almost paid the ultimate price.

“It’s part of the culture. It’s cool to be a narcotrafficker, because you have money, because you have followers,” Gallardo says. “But when someone wants to behead you, you’re going to turn yourself in.”