Small Wars Journal

Information Warfare in Mexico’s Drug War: The Dámaso López (“El Licenciado”) Case Study

Fri, 04/01/2022 - 7:31pm

Information Warfare in Mexico’s Drug War: The Dámaso López (“El Licenciado”) Case Study

Daniel Weisz Argomedo

Information warfare is a critical component of Mexican cartels’ battle against the state and one another. Some cartels, such as the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), engage in propaganda campaigns portraying their military might focusing upon their armored vehicles and high-caliber weapons. Other times this may express itself as censorship and control over the media, e.g., story suppression and the killing of reporters. An interesting case that showcases how information operations (IO) are a critical component of the Mexican drug war comes from the internal struggle to control the Sinaloa Cartel that intensified when “El Chapo” Guzmán was extradited.

Extradition Dámaso L

Extradition of Dámaso “L” Lopez “El Licenciado” to the US. Source: Fiscalía General de la República (@FGRMexico)

The Dámaso López case study epitomizes the importance that information operations have for organized crime in Mexico. The case study exemplifies the diversity and applicability of information operations. Information operations pose a threat to the security environment in Mexico, but at the same time, present an opportunity for security forces to use technology against organized crime. Information operations in Mexico have also jumped into the virtual arena by utilizing social media as a new battleground for their information warfare (IW). It is essential to understand what the concept of information warfare and ‘information operations’ include and how they work in the context of the Mexican war on drugs.

Cartel Use of Information Warfare 

Information warfare (IW) is a critical component of modern conflict. Matthew J. Fecteau notes that the nonprofit think tank RAND Corporation defines IW as being the “collection of tactical information about an adversary as well as the dissemination of propaganda in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent.”[1] The definition provided by the RAND Corporation is too narrow to encompass the variety of operations that can be utilized in IW. The RAND Corporation also fails to distinguish the term IW with the term IO. The Joint Doctrine for Information Operations of 1998 distinguishes information warfare from information operations. The publication defines IO as “actions taken to affect adversary information and information systems while defending one’s own information and information systems.”[2] the publication addresses IW as “IO conducted during time of crisis or conflict (including war) to achieve or promote specific objectives over a specific adversary or adversaries.”[3] These definitions are useful to distinguish IO from IW but are too narrow in their understanding of information systems. Robert J. Bunker defines information warfare as the “defense and attack of information systems.”[4] He also explains that organizations can be understood as information systems regardless of their composition.[5] It is the second part of Bunker’s definition that becomes a crucial addition as it broadens the application of the term IW to a variety of different actors and organizations such as cartels. I use Bunker’s definition of IW and of information systems throughout the paper as it is the definition that best encapsulates the evolving nature of IW and IO.

John P. Sullivan has traced how information operations (IO) in Mexico’s drug war have evolved. He notes how cartels have utilized information operations to further their goals and have been effective at censoring the media and, in some cases, turning them into their mouthpieces.[6] Sullivan has traced how several newspapers that have experienced attacks, such as El Norte in Monterrey and El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo, have decreased their coverage of cartel violence.[7] The author explains how this creates news blackouts in specific regions that amount to a form of censorship that dissuades reporters from investigating or reporting on drug-related violence.[8] On the 18th of September 2010, El Diario (a newspaper from Ciudad Juárez) reflected the repression and impunity experienced by journalists as they printed an editorial asking the cartels, “What do you want from us?” following the assassination of one of its photographers.[9]

Sullivan notes that cartels have embraced “new media” (social networking sites) technologies as a new platform to control information.[10] Journalists began to use social media and blogs such as El Blog del Narco to continue reporting drug-related violence.[11] This transition led cartels to dominate this new virtual space and weaponize it, using information operations. As he further notes, cartels have embraced this new virtual space to present themselves as the protectors of their communities or ‘social bandits.’[12] As James Forest explains concerning IW, “the attacker seeks to weaponize information against a target to gain the power needed to achieve the goals articulated in their strategic influence plan.”[13] These goals can span from changing a target’s beliefs and behaviors to manufacturing uncertainty on the target.[14]

Providing cartel IW historical context, Bunker identifies information offensives and counter-offensives involving cartels, Mexican citizens, and reporters into 2011. He traces the first offensive of cartels from 2005-2006 as they used social media to show the torture and killings of their enemies and then the second offensive co-opting information produced by the media.[15] This second offensive and the lack of protection from the government is the reason why Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism. Television stations have been attacked with grenades, and several journalists and reporters have been killed, kidnapped, or remain disappeared.[16] The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) traces the number of murdered journalists worldwide. The CPJ reports that from 2000 to 2022, 59 journalists were murdered in Mexico, with the motive for their murder confirmed.[17] CPJ reports that 136 journalists and media workers were murdered in Mexico during the same timeframe including those without a confirmed motive for their murder.[18]

ARTICLE 19 (An international human rights organization the goals of which are to protect and promote freedom of expression and freedom of information) reports that from 2000 to 2022, 150 journalists were murdered in Mexico overall.[19] The censorships imposed by cartels as part of their information operations coupled with the deficiencies of the Mexican judicial system are probable culprits for the difference in tallies. Bunker’s identified third offensive was the creation of blogs by citizens to inform the public on activities journalists could no longer report. Then the ensuing cartel counter-offensive (a fourth offensive) targeted these bloggers whom they assassinated.[20] The fifth offensive was a video in which some men (possibly linked to the Sinaloa cartel) killed Los Zetas, cartel members. The last, and sixth, counter-offensive described how the hacker group Anonymous threatened Los Zetas for kidnapping one of its members.[21] It should be noted, the fifth offensive is a clear example of cartel-on-cartel “information operations.” In contrast, the first through fourth phase examples show a cartel’s use of information operations targeting the media and citizens who tried to circumvent the media’s censorship through blogs. As Paul Rexton Kan analyzes the altercation between Los Zetas and Anonymous, he concludes that the “use of the digital domain by non-state groups for unanticipated forms of cyberwar is only limited by the human imagination.”[22] Dámaso López understood the importance of information operations and sought to utilize them to his advantage.

Nilda Garcia expands on the use of social media by cartels as she examines the use of platforms like Facebook for human smuggling operations. Garcia finds that cartel members from the Cartel del Noreste (CDN) are active members in Facebook pages linked to human smuggling activities.[23] Garcia’s research demonstrates the wide usage of social media by cartel members that use this medium as a tool to expand their human smuggling operations and sometimes use it as a recruitment tool by showing off their wealth.[24] Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Rajendra G. Kulkarni, Patrick R. Baxter, and Naoru Koizumi conducted a social network analysis to understand the network of messengers involved in the drug war within cyberspace in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The researchers found that several of the anonymous accounts in social media that portray themselves as “citizen journalists” were in fact perpetuating certain narratives that seemed to have the interests or the agenda of other actors behind them.[25] What is remarkable is that it is not only cartel members that participate in these anonymous postings, but there are possible connections to the state’s police that has been accused of having links with organized crime.[26] The study demonstrates the importance of social media as it has become a battlefield in Tamaulipas over narratives on the drug war. As more actors become involved in this cyberbattle it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain truth from fiction as the interests of the state, the security forces, and organized crime converge in the cyberspace. 

The Dámaso López Case Study

Dámaso López, “El Licenciado,” was a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel engaged in various information warfare activities. He represents an interesting case in which he is the intellectual author of the killing of a reporter who wrote on the Sinaloa cartel’s inner power struggles. The reporter’s killing is a form of information operation that fits into John Sullivan’s and Adam Elkus’s explanation of how cartels use IO to censor the media. As the authors’ note, the main goal of cartel’s information operations is to form a perception of power and inevitability amongst targeted audiences, which cartels can achieve by eliminating journalists spreading messages contrary to their desires.[27] As the authors explain, attacks on journalists are a crucial part of cartel’s information operations to shape and dominate the information space.[28] López also used a hacker to help Guzmán escape from prison and planned on engaging in an “information operation” to gain control over the Sinaloa Cartel. This last activity to gain control over the Sinaloa Cartel is an example of Sullivan’s account that cartels engage in information operations over social media. This new arena provides the perfect space to engage in information operations designed to manipulate citizens’ understanding (perceptions of reality) of the cartel violence they experience.

López was the sub-director of surveillance and custody in the Puente Grande prison and had a crucial role in the 2001 escape of Guzmán from the Puente Grande prison.[29] The escape of Guzman earned him a high-ranking position in the Sinaloa Cartel, and alongside Juan José “El Azul” and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, he became one of the central figures in the cartel.[30] López was able to obtain information from public servants relating to operations against the Sinaloa Cartel and became the primary link between Guzmán and Colombian drug traffickers.[31] López would eventually become the financial operator for Guzmán. His son Dámaso Lopez Serrano, known as “El Mini Lic,” also became part of the cartel orchestrating the murder of 15 and more than 20 kidnappings enemies of the cartel.[32]

López was widely believed to be the successor for Guzmán, and during Guzmán’s 2014 arrest, when interrogated by authorities on his possible successor, he answered, “Surely my friend Dámaso.”[33] López's family would first contact the hacker that would lead to his arrest to try and disrupt the network for the Altiplano prison in which “El Chapo” was held.[34] After his 2015 escape from the prison of Altiplano, Guzmán instead decided to hand over control to his brother Aureliano Guzmán Loera, “El Guano” and his children Iván Archibaldo and Alfredo.[35] López already had his group known as the special forces of Dámaso that controlled part of the south of Sinaloa and Baja California Sur (BCS). So, he decided to fight for control of the cartel once Guzmán was arrested for the third and final time the 8th of January 2016 and extradited (January 2017).[36] Dàmaso created an alliance with the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) to take over the BCS plaza from the Sinaloa Cartel.[37] The struggle over control of BCS led to open violence across the state. In BCS 97 people died in violent acts in the first two months of 2017, this figure surpassed the number of intentional homicides for the whole year of 2014 in BCS.[38]

In June of 2016, López hired the same hacker that had failed to use a cyberattack to disrupt the network of Altiplano to create a viral campaign on social media to discredit the sons of “El Chapo.”[39] The hacker shared evidence of this campaign by showing screenshots of fake entries made on a blog shared through Facebook and an image showing the administrative settings of the page he had created.[40] As Forest explains, one of the primary goals of information operations is to deceive the target (spoofing it) into believing something false.[41]. Claire Wardle defines misinformation as “the inadvertent sharing of false information” and disinformation as “the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false.”[42]

Javier Valdez was a well-respected journalist in Sinaloa that wrote about the inner power struggles of the Sinaloa Cartel. López wanted to silence Valdez and his reporting, so he hired three men to murder Valdez as was described by “El Koala” during his trial of the murder (he was the only assassin captured by the government for the crime).[43] Valdez’s reporting became a clear example of information that was being spread contrary to the desires of the Sinaloa Cartel and, more specifically, López, who was planning to take over the cartel. The elimination of Valdez demonstrated power and established a line of censorship over the topic of inner power struggles of the cartel. In a sense, López was able to create a black box surrounding his ambitions to take over the cartel and established the ‘price to pay’ if any other journalist published on the subject. The killing of Valdez itself was highly speculated on due to how difficult it has become to discern the truth given the lack of rule of law and the commonality of information operations in the region.

Forest points to the use of new technological tools and tactics that make manipulating information more sophisticated.[44] The use of social media is essential as the censorship described by Sullivan on newspapers and journalists has led most in Mexico to obtain information on drug violence through social media. The move to social media and new forms of communication by journalists and others seeking to reappropriate freedom of information legitimizes this new cyberspace. Once these new forms of communication gain legitimacy, they become new centers of power of information. This new power transforms these cyberspaces into new battlegrounds where information operations by cartels seek to regain control of the information being spread about them online.

This Damáso López campaign to discredit the sons of “El Chapo” centered on the use of social media as cartels understand the importance of spaces like Facebook for information operations. Cartels can take advantage of these new communication spaces as new technologies facilitate the creation of disinformation and allow for the mass distribution of their digital propaganda. The creation of fake entries shows how the cartels can manipulate other cartel members' understanding of the violence they experience to cast a particular part of a cartel as the aggressors. In this case, López blamed the violence on the sons of “El Chapo,” Iván and Alfredo, as the smear campaign accused them of giving up cartel members in exchange for their father’s protection.[45] The campaign gave them the nickname “Los Sapitos” (another form of saying the informers), and López created the now-defunct website [46] Dámaso carefully supervised the content and monitor how many views the website and blogs would get.[47] Cartels can also use information operations to show themselves as the protectors while discrediting the government.

During the trial of Joaquín Guzmán, prosecutors revealed a letter from Guzmán to López. In the letter Guzmán would make sure that the members and widows were paid and whatever profit was left was split evenly between him and “El Chapo’s” four sons.[48] A source close to Dámaso López accused “El Chapo’s” sons of not respecting the accords set up and having provoked López by incursions of Francisco Javier Zazueta (“El Chimal”) into their territory without permission.[49]

Direct violence began to erupt in Sinaloa due to the split between López and the sons of “El Chapo.” An example of this violence occurred on the 7th of February of 2017. The cells called Los Montana that worked for López, and the Chimallis that work for the Guzmans engaged in four shootouts in different parts of Villa Benito Juárez in Novalto.[50] The shootouts resulted in two presumed cartel members dead and three innocent victims killed.[51] Some journalists believe that López tried to form an alliance with the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) as well as the leader of the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) that resulted in the kidnapping of “El Chapo’s” sons in Puerto Vallarta 14August 2016.[52] The attorney general of the republic of Mexico, Raúl Cervantes Andrade, confirmed the alliance between Dámazo López and the CJNG to dispute control over Sinaloa and traced the collapse of the alliance to Dámaso López’s arrest the 2May 2017.[53]

The sons of “El Chapo” sent a public letter to the journalist Ciro Gomez Leyva. They accused Dámaso López of betraying them and trying to assassinate them and “El Mayo” Zambada.[54] In the letter, the sons exposed how Dámaso López had scheduled a meeting to discuss evidence that López had ordered the kidnapping in Puerto Vallarta on the 4February  2017.[55] When “El Chapo’s” sons and Mayo Zambada arrived, they noticed López was not there, and they were immediately ambushed, resulting in their bodyguard being murdered.[56]  During their escape, more armed men under Dámaso’s orders attacked them, and they were able to escape by going into the mountains and asking for help once they had reached a town several miles away.[57]

López would become victim to his own information operations as the hacker he had hired had become an informant for the police, helped video López during a meeting in Mexico City, and helped locate his car.[58] López was subsequently arrested the 2nd of May 2017 while the hacker, a year later after he had helped with the arrest, denounced the lack of protection or reward money the Mexican government had promised him.[59] The son of López “El Mini Lic” would give himself up in 2017 to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and a year later in 2018 his father would be extradited to the US.[60] Dámaso López testified against “El Chapo” and his wife Emma Coronel Aispuro and “El Mini Lic” confessed his role in illicit activities for the Sinaloa Cartel.[61]  


In summation, the activities of Dámaso López represent a perfect case study to understand the diversity in modes and targets of information operations used by cartels. López first tried to use information warfare against the government to target the network of the Altiplano prison in his efforts to help break out “El Chapo” from prison. He then murdered and silenced a journalist that exposed the inner power struggles of the Sinaloa Cartel in a moment when he was trying to gain control. This assassination can be understood as an information operation to seek control over the information relating to his search for control over the Sinaloa Cartel. Finally, he used a hacker to try and engage “El Chapo’s” sons in a dirty propaganda war on social media that would accuse them of giving up cartel members to protect their father to discredit them and take over the Sinaloa Cartel.

The increased use of social media to engage in information operations results from a combination of factors. The first is the censorship that has led several journalists and citizens to use new forms of communication to report on cartel violence such as the blog called Blog del Narco (Narco’s Blog). The second is the worldwide pivot towards digital media caused by the low costs to print in this space and the opportunity to disseminate information worldwide. This shift has legitimized these cyberspaces that have more avenues for disinformation and misinformation and has created a new battleground over information control. Cartels increasingly use information operations in these cyberspaces to control the information being spread and weaponize it against their enemies.

These forms of information operations are strengthened in this new space that facilitates the creation and dissemination of propaganda. As Sullivan and Bunker point out, these information operations are a crucial element and tool used by cartels in Mexico that continue to evolve in their complexity and targets. It is essential that the Mexican government identifies these operations as a threat and uses technology to locate and capture their targets. In February 2020 an FBI report exposed how Enchrochat, an encrypted network, was broken into by European investigators, and hundreds of geolocations and private conversations by members of the Sinaloa Cartel were exposed.[62] The use of technology by cartel members and their need for hackers to engage in complex information operations may serve as an opportunity for law enforcement to investigate and arrest cartel members.


[1] Matthew J. Fecteau, “Understanding Information Operations & Information Warfare.” Global Security Review. 7 June 2019,; RAND’s “Information Operations” page, contains the following definition: “Information operations and warfare, also known as influence operations, includes the collection of tactical information about an adversary as well as the dissemination of propaganda in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent. RAND research has enabled military leaders and policymakers to develop strategies and policy frameworks to address the challenges of these military operations.” “Information Operations.” Santa Monica: RAND. No Date,

[2] Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Joint Pub 3-13, Joint Doctrine for Information Operations.” Washington, DC. 9 October 1998: p.1,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert J. Bunker, “Battlespace Dynamics, Information Warfare to Netwar, and Bond-Relationship Targeting.” Small Wars and Insurgencies. Vol. 13, no. 2. 2002: pp. 97-108,  

[5] Ibid.

[6] John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Info Ops: Power and Counter-power in Mexico’s Drug War.”   Mountain Runner. 15 November 2010,

[7] John P. Sullivan, “Attacks on Journalists and ‘New Media’ in Mexico's Drug War.” Small Wars Journal. 9 April 2011,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Op. Cit., Sullivan at Note 7.

[10] Op. Cit., Sullivan at Note 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Op. Cit., Sullivan, at Note 7.

[13] James J.F. Forest, “Political Warfare and Propaganda.” Journal of Advanced Military Studies. Vol. 12, no. 1. 2021: p. 20,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Robert J. Bunker, “The Growing Mexican Cartel and Vigilante War in Cyberspace: Information Offensives and Counter-Offensives.” Small Wars Journal. 3 November 2011,

[16] John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations.” Small Wars Journal. 3 December 2012,

[17] “Explore all CPJ Data.” Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2022,

[18] “Periodistas asesinadas/os en México, en relación con su labor informativa,”

[19] Op. Cit., Committee to Protect Journalists at Note 17.

[20] Op. Cit., Bunker at Note 15.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Paul Rexton Kan, “Cyberwar in the Underworld: Anonymous versus Los Zetas in Mexico.” Yale Journal of International Affairs. 26 February 2013,

[23] Nilda M. Garcia, “The Convergence of Illicit Networks on Social Media: the Human Smuggling-Drug Trafficking Nexus.” Small Wars Journal. 28 February 2022,  

[24] Ibid.

[25] Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Rajendra G. Kulkarni, Patrick R. Baxter, and Naoru Koizumi, “Messengers of a Drug War in the Cyberspace: The Case of Tamaulipas.” Small Wars Journal. 7 September 2021,

[26] Ibid.

[27] John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Mexican Drug Lords vs. Cybervigilantes and the Social Media.” Mexidata. 5 March 2012,

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Difunden video de ‘El Licenciado’, quien disputa el liderazgo del cártel de Sinaloa.” Proceso. 24 April 2017,

[30] Ibid.

[31] “De ahijado del Chapo a informante de EEUU: así fue como ‘El Mini Lic’ perdió la batalla por el Cártel de Sinaloa.” Infobae. 12 August 2019,

[32] Ibid.

[33] Elia Baltazar, “Dámaso López, ‘El Licenciado’: el capo que cayó por la traición de un hacker.” Infobae. 6 May 2018,

[34] Lorenzo Francheschi-Bicchierai and Brian Anderson, “¿Qué pasó con el hacker que ayudó a capturar a ‘El Licenciado’?” Excelsior. 18 May 2017,

[35] Op. Cit., Baltazar at Note 33.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Fabiola Martínez, “Pugna entre cartels hizo subir a BCS al tercer lugar en homicidios.” La Jornada. 19 April 2017,

[38] Ibid.

[39] Op. Cit., Francheschi-Bicchierai and Anderson at Note 34.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Op. Cit., Forest at Note 13.

[42] Claire Wardle, “Fake news. It’s complicated.” First Draft. 16 February 2017,

[43] Op. Cit., Baltazar at Note 33.

[44] Op. Cit., Forest at Note 13.

[45] Anabel Hernández, “El successor de ‘El Chapo’: Dámaso López Núñez.” Ciper. 9 February 2017,

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] “Narcotraición: ‘El Chapo’ le encargó a sus hijos, pero ‘El Licenciado’ los intento matar.” Infobae. 1 March 2019,

[49] “Los trabajos de Javier Valdez que pudieron molestar a los Dámaso” Riodoce. 1 May 2018,

[50] Alejandro Monjardín, “La nueva rupture del Cártel: asesinatos, ‘levantados’ y sicosis en la población.” Riodoce. 13 February 2017,

[51] Ibid.

[52] Op. Cit. Baltazar at Note 33.

[53] “Captura de ‘El Licenciado’ logró evitar alianza con el CJNG, asegura Cervantes.” Proceso. 3 May 2017,

[54] Op. Cit. Baltazar at Note 33. 

[55] Op. Cit., Infobae at Note 48.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Op. Cit., Francheschi-Bicchierai and Anderson at Note 34.

[59] Ibid.

[60] “Quién es el ‘Mini Lic’ del famoso narcocorrido ‘Dámaso’, interpretado por Gerardo Ortiz.” Infobae. 14 January 2022,

[61] Ibid.

[62] Timothy L. Quintero, “Sinaloa Cartel Used Encrypted Phone Network Hacked By Police, FBI Document Says.” Vice. 27 July 2020,

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Daniel Weisz Argomedo earned his PhD in Political Science at the University of California Irvine with a focus on International Relations and Comparative Studies. His dissertation focused on the war on drugs and its impact on women’s security in Mexico. He holds an M.A. in Political Science from San Diego State University where he wrote a dissertation on ‘Hacktivism and social movements; and earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Alberta where he wrote a thesis on the Mexican war on drugs. He wrote "Climate Change, Drug Traffickers and La Sierra Tarahumara" for the special issue on climate change and global security at the Journal of Strategic Security. He is a founder and secretary of the Leonora Carrington Foundation. He is fluent in Spanish and his research interests include cyberwarfare, the war on drugs, women’s security and contemporary Latin American politics and history.  He can be reached at