By JULIE WATSON
SAN DIEGO (AP) - The highest-ranking member of a Mexican cartel to ever surrender to U.S. authorities has pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges, acknowledging he orchestrated the shipments of thousands of pounds (kilograms) of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin to the United States.
Damaso Lopez Serrano, 29, entered his plea Wednesday in federal court in San Diego, nearly six months after turning himself over to U.S. authorities at California's border with Mexico, the highest-ranking Mexican cartel leader to do so, the U.S. attorney's office said.
His father, Damaso Lopez Nunez, was arrested in Mexico City in May and had been battling for control of the Sinaloa cartel following the 2016 arrest of billionaire kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Mexican officials have blamed Lopez Nunez for instigating violence in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa and the peninsula of Baja California, including a string of killings around Cabo San Lucas.
U.S. authorities are seeking Lopez Nunez's extradition. Guzman was sent to the United States last year to face drug charges.
Lopez Serrano, who has been described as violent and flashy by Mexican experts, acknowledged in federal court that he held a leadership role in the cartel. He also said he was armed while trafficking drugs and pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges out of a separate case in Virginia that also names his father.
He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and has agreed to forfeit $1 million in cash.
Lopez Serrano's conviction "strikes a serious blow to the leadership of the Sinaloa cartel and its violent drug trafficking activities," acting Assistant Attorney General John P. Cronan of the U.S. Justice Department's criminal division said in a statement.
The case is part of a five-year investigation that has resulted in charges against more than 125 people, the seizure of thousands of tons of drugs and more than $27 million in drug proceeds. U.S. officials said the probe has shed light on the inner workings of one of the world's most powerful drug cartels.
This story has been corrected to remove hyphen in name in final reference to Lopez Serrano.
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