My Explosive Interview With Narco "Mini Lic"
The Mexican government wants to extradite him. The Chapitos want to kill him. He met me in Los Angeles.
Editors Note - To understand the relentless bloodshed in Mexico and the tragic overdose crisis in the United States, we need to talk to those at the heart of the story. My friend and one of the best journalists in Mexico, Luis Chaparro, did hours of interviews with the narco turned informant Dámaso López Serrano alias Mini Lic. His declarations must of course be taken with caution. And we in no way approve of Dámaso’s criminal life especially as he is accused of ordering the murder of legendary journalist, and friend, Javier Valdez. (While Dámaso admits to trafficking, he claims he was framed for Javier’s death.) But if we want to find a way out of this mess, than we need to understand what truly drives cartels and why they are so hard to stop. Dámaso’s testimony points not only to the level of corruption in Mexico but raises questions about the use of narco witnesses in the United States.
A number of Dámaso’s statements from the interview were already published in Spanish in Mexico’s top news magazine Proceso, but this has new material and is the first of his words in an English-language publication. I’m proud to have it here and show what we can do with true independent journalism. Part one is free to the world and part two is behind the paywall to give back to you who have supported this from day one and encourage others to back grassroots media. IG (Part 2 of the interview is here).
The Instagram message hits me on a sweltering night in May on the Texas-Mexico border. The sender identifies himself as Dámaso, and says he’s been following my work. My heart picks up a beat. Could this really be Dámaso López Serrano, alias "Mini Lic,” the Sinaloa Cartel trafficker who went to war with the Chapitos? The informant who handed himself in at the border and cooperated against their father, and his godfather, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán? The fugitive wanted in Mexico for the murder of legendary journalist Javier Valdez?
I’m suspicious. I get messages from weirdos who claim to be big narcos, like Mayo Zambada himself, and turn out to be teenagers in their bedrooms. I ask Dámaso to turn his camera on. Bang. On my cell phone, I see the bearded, angular face of Mini Lic. I’m talking with a man who has been close to the most prolific capos in Mexico, and was himself indicted for trafficking heinous amounts of cocaine, meth and heroin.
Dámaso says he likes my reports. “You talk some shit but you don’t lie,” he says. “Everyone is within their rights to publicize themselves and that's fine.”
Narcos have a complicated view of the media. They want publicity but also intimidate and assassinate reporters. Since 2000, more than 150 journalists have been murdered in Mexico making it one of the most perilous countries in the world for the trade.
We talk for 20 minutes and find we can relate. We have things common, both born in 1987, me in Ciudad Juárez, him in Sinaloa, coming of age as Mexico’s drug trade turned into a catastrophic drug war. Covering it as a journalist gives you a burning curiosity to find out what is going on behind the scenes. I arrange to fly to Los Angeles and meet him in person.
Dámaso is what is called a narco junior, the son of a big trafficker. In his case, his father and namesake was Dámaso López Nuñez, “El Licenciado,” a police commander who worked as a prison guard when El Chapo was locked up, helped him escape in 2001 and then turned into his right hand man. Dámaso became a godson of El Chapo and close friends with his sons, known as the Chapitos, and they rose together in the drug trade in the 2000s.
Things turned sour after El Chapo was recaptured (and then escaped and was recaptured again but this is Mexico) and was extradited to the United States in January 2017. Tension rose between the Damasos and the Chapitos for control of the empire and it erupted into open warfare.
The Chapitos appeared to outfight and out maneuver the Damasos. El Licenciado was was arrested in May 2017 and Dámaso handed himself in at the California town of Calexico that July. U.S. prosecutors called him, “the highest-ranking Mexican cartel leader ever to self-surrender in the United States.”
Even U.S. custody wasn’t safe for Dámaso. In 2019, he testified a hit had been put out on him in prison for being a “snitch.” He continued to give information and was a key witness in an extradition order for Ovidio Guzmán, one of the Chapitos arrested in January.
In September 2022, Dámaso was released after five years but continues under federal supervision. Meanwhile, a Mexican court issued an extradition order for the murder of journalist Javier Valdez. Dámaso’s situation is extremely precarious. Why then did he reach out to me?
I land in Los Angeles on June 12, a month after the call, and check into the cheapest hotel I can find by the airport. My nerves stop me from sleeping, wondering what the hell I’m getting into. I spend the early morning staring at my cellphone and an app Dámaso asked me to download.
A few minutes after nine, a call comes through the app with no number but a long jumbled code. I hear Dámaso’s raspy Sinaloan accent. “What’s up? Shall I come up or you come down or what shall we do?”
I look out the window and see a black van with equally black glass. Across the street is a white guy in a baseball cap and khaki pants who I guess is a fed on Dámaso’s case but I’m not certain. “I’ll come down,” I say.
When I hit the street, Dámaso gets out the passenger seat and extends his hand. He’s tall, smiling, dressed in a green military cap with a U.S. flag and wearing khaki pants like the guy across the street (who has now disappeared.)
The man behind the wheel is in his thirties with a Mexican guero look, different than the American blonde. He also wears a cap and shades, and has a cross-body bag clung to his chubby frame, the kind narcos use to stash guns. He stays silent, taking orders from Dámaso without daring to speak other than in agreement and Dámaso never introduces him.
Dámaso asks if I want breakfast or if I'd rather go straight to the interview. I figure it’s a better idea to share food.
We go to IHOP, the international house of pancakes, which adds to how surreal it all feels. I eat hotcakes with honey and raspberries and look into his hard face. I think about what he’s witnessed, the bloody power struggle among Sinaloan drug lords, and how that’s a million miles from this restaurant that symbolizes family comfort and the American Dream.
I tell him I want to talk about his life in the cartel, his charges in Mexico, his legal deals in the United States. He says not to worry. There will be time to chat about it all.
A striking thing about Dámaso (and the Chapitos) is that he grew up around wealth, albeit from narcotics, and it shows in his confidence and manners. The narco juniors are not like El Chapo or El Mayo who were peasants in sandals before they harvested poppies. The juniors came into a criminal empire already established. But they stepped up and increased the level of traffic and violence.
Dámaso is worried the violence will reach him here. A few weeks earlier, his cousin was murdered in Arizona. As we leave the IHOP, a pair of Latinos with shaved heads step abruptly out a car and Dámaso’s driver grabs the bag on his chest. Luckily, the guys are just hungry for pancakes.
We go to my small hotel room and sit on chairs while his driver stands guard in the corner. Dámaso lays out a manila folder, a notebook and two cell phones. He’s documenting his life for a book, he says. We begin the first of a series of interviews I will record with him.
My Dad is El Chapo’s Right Hand Man
The Dámasos hail from Eldorado, a small town about 30 miles from the city of Culiacán. He grew up at the heart of the Mexican drug trade in an era of huge expansion, when traffickers were moving billions of dollars worth of dope to Americans. Yet Dámaso had a normal early childhood. Almost.
“My father, as he was a commander in the judicial police, sometimes took me to school in the patrol car. Once, he took me for a ride in a police helicopter and I was the envy of the elementary.”
When Dámaso was 14, El Chapo escaped and his father, the prison guard, joined him on the lam. “That's when my life really changed. My father dedicated himself to serving El Chapo, to keeping him company, and that was when he was given a good level in the organization…He was the closest person to him.”
Dámaso tried to take a different path. He dreamed of being an airline pilot and started training. But when he had to go the military base to get his flying permission, his dad said the exposure was too risky. “No way, do something else,” he said. So Dámaso wanted to start a restaurant or bar. His dad said he could supply the money but Dámaso had to put someone else to front it, again to avoid exposure. “Well, that's not a real business,” Dámaso says. “I wanted to stand on my own two feet, to do something really mine, from the bottom up.” So he got into cocaine.
Dámaso organized his first shipment and was pleased he’d managed to get so many kilo bricks through. But he realized he messed up the numbers and failed to make a profit. Even narcos have to learn and Dámaso was only a teenager. But he soon figured out how to tune into the massive drug profits and his indictments detail how he and father moved vast amounts of cocaine, heroin and meth for over a decade.
As a young narco in Sinaloa connected to the capos, Dámaso lived a life of wild parties and impunity. He once had a girlfriend and wanted to take her out but she was working at a bank. So he shot up the street and she was given the day off.
On the run, El Chapo spent a lot time in Eldorado as it was good to hide but closer to the action than his mountain home of La Tuna. Dámaso got to spend time with him and claims he became his favorite godson.
One day, Chapo arrived at a ranch with his beauty queen wife Emma, along with a “secretary” and two cooks. El Chapo asked Dámaso how the narco juniors were doing and what they were up to. Dámaso was best friends with Chapo’s son Edgar and he was especially interested in him. “He always came back to Edgar. ‘Hey, and Edgar calls you,’ he would say to me. ‘Hey, and Edgar, how much of a player he is, he has a lot of girlfriends.’ ”
In 2008, gunmen shot Edgar dead in a Culiacán shopping mall. Afterwards, Dámaso says, “El Chapo saw me a lot…I think El Chapo saw something of Edgar in me.”
The Sinaloa Cartel bosses collude to keep peace and negotiate impunity and Dámaso saw how this inner circle functioned. One time, Chapo, Licenciando, and Mayo met in Eldorado to arrange a federal bribe to keep the drugs flowing. “They were looking at how to raise $10 million dollars to give to García Luna in exchange for protection and the elimination of rivals.”
Genaro García Luna was the federal security minister under Felipe Calderón, and a key architect of his supposed war on cartels. A New York court convicted him in February of working for the Sinaloa Cartel.
I remark that ten million is a lot of money. “It's a lot of money for most people,” Dámaso says, but if “they assure you that you are going to get a thousand tons through there without a problem then I think $10 million is a gift.”
In the election of 2012, Dámaso claims, the cartel shifted to get people to vote for Enrique Peña Nieto, who won the presidency. (A cartel witness at the 2019 trial of El Chapo also made accusations against Peña Nieto. He denies any wrongdoing.) Dámaso’s description implies the narco role in elections is bigger than thought.
“To begin with, all the land that we controlled and the people who worked with us were given the order to vote…and their relatives and neighbors and friends and any friends they had in other towns or states. From town to town you get several thousand votes, like one town has 3,000, another 5,000 and so on, and you get a few million…
We would order someone to stand outside a voting booth…and hand out a thousand pesos to each person who would show that they voted for the one we told them to. And so on from each polling place. We also sponsored rallies, banners.”
As we talk, Dámaso is focused and intense but he has to break now and then to take calls. After one, he shakes his head.
“It's the gringos,” he says. “They're asking me where I am and if there's any news from them.” The gringos refers to the DEA and “them” to the Chapitos.
“Do the Chapitos know you are cooperating against them?” I ask.
“Of course they know. It's not for nothing they want to kill me and my whole family.”
Click here to read part two of the interview with Dámaso, which goes into the rise of fentanyl, the kidnapping of the Chapitos, the murder of Javier Valdez, and Dámaso’s cooperation with the DEA.
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Editing and contributed writing by Ioan Grillo
Copyright Ioan Grillo, Luis Chaparro and CrashoutMedia 2023