A former Mexican government official once romantically linked to drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was arrested in San Diego on suspicion of conspiracy to distribute drugs, a federal complaint confirms.
Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez was detained Wednesday at around 9:30 a.m. at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry as she tried to enter the United States from Mexico using her visa.
According to a complaint filed in the United States District Court, Southern District of California, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer working the inspections booth at the border crossing used a database to check the status of Lopez’s visa and discovered it had been canceled by the U.S. State Department.
Additional checks of the database revealed Lopez is believed to have been involved in illegal drug trafficking and money laundering activities linked to Guzman.
The federal complaint accuses Lopez of conspiring with others to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine in the U.S. between January 2013 and June 21, 2017. Lopez was arrested Wednesday on drug conspiracy charges and booked into the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
She made her first appearance in a federal courtroom in San Diego Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara L. Major. Lopez did not enter a plea, Kelly Thornton of the Office of the U.S. Attorney Southern District of California told NBC 7.
Thornton said there was a question in court about whether Lopez was truthful on a financial document that judges use to determine if a defendant is eligible for court-appointed counsel. That matter will be the subject of a hearing set for June 29.
For now, Judge Major appointed federal defenders to represent Lopez temporarily. She is considered a flight risk, so the government moved to detain her, Thornton said. Lopez’s preliminary hearing is set for July 6.
Lopez made headlines in 2014 after Mexican authorities accused her of meeting secretly with Guzman while he was imprisoned in Mexico. Officials claimed Lopez had a romantic relationship with the drug kingpin.
The federal complaint filed against Lopez this week details some of her alleged involvement in an elaborate drug trafficking conspiracy for Guzman and other leaders of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. She is one of many suspects under investigation by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in a case out of Nogales, Arizona, targeting an El Chapo-led drug ring known as “DTO.”
The federal investigation has found that DTO transports large quantities of cocaine and other illegal drugs into the U.S., including via Southern California. This is done through a complex, "tiered," secret communications system between Sinaloa Cartel leaders and lower-level members.
According to the complaint, Lopez communicated with Guzman's operatives via cell phones, at times using cryptic messages. She also went by several aliases during those communications.
Many messages detailed in the complaint were about delivering drug proceeds – between $100,000 and $500,000 – to certain people in Guzman’s network.
The complaint also details encounters Lopez allegedly had with an informant who told federal investigators that Lopez claimed she was with El Chapo on Feb. 16, 2014 – the day the cartel leader famously escaped through a tunnel hidden under a bathtub as Mexican authorities raided his house.
Per the informant, Lopez allegedly told Guzman to go to Cosala, Sinaloa, with her because she worked there as a government official. To read the full complaint, click here.
While Lopez will be back in court next week, El Chapo’s trial is slated for April 2018.
El Chapo is famous for twice escaping from prison in Mexico.
He was recaptured in early January and extradited to the U.S. and has since remained in solitary confinement, in a 20-by-12-foot cell for 23 hours a day. The U.S. government has said severe restrictions are necessary for El Chapo, as he has used coded messages, bribes and other means to continue operating his drug empire from behind bars.