TAMPA, Fla. — The United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, Maria Chapa Lopez, is a first generation Mexican-American who’s humble about being one of the most powerful people in the Bay area.
- Maria Chapa Lopez is the US Attorney for Middle District of Florida
- She’s the first Hispanic woman to hold that position
- One of the most powerful people in the Bay area
“If I am, I’m proud to represent Hispanics,” she said. “I’m proud to represent who we are and our culture.”
Chapa Lopez granted Spectrum Bay News 9 an exclusive interview for Hispanic Heritage month, which runs through October 15. The U.S. Attorney said her parents got married in Mexico and immigrated to Chicago in the 1950’s.
“That’s where I was born,” she said. “That’s where they raised five kids.”
Chapa Lopez is the oldest of her siblings. The family moved to Odessa, Texas, when she was 10-years-old to be closer to her grandparents who still lived in Mexico.
“We grew up going to Mexico in the summers,” said Chapa Lopez. “Really maintaining the pride in our culture.”
Chapa Lopez received her B.A. from the University of Texas and after graduating from South Texas College of Law in Houston, she enrolled into the Army.
“Probably the best decision I ever made,” she said. “My husband is of Puerto Rican descent, from New York and I met him in the Army… at a training course in Kansas and he retired from the Army and is a Deputy Sheriff with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.”
Chapa Lopez spent more than 11 years in the Army before becoming an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida in April of 2000. For the next 16 years, Chapa Lopez prosecuted maritime transnational drug trafficking organizations, large-scale money laundering cases and complex opioid cases.
“The Coast Guard interdicts out in the middle of the ocean,” she said. “The tons of cocaine out there, I was prosecuting those cases.”
During 10 of those years, Chapa Lopez said she would travel to Mexico quarterly to train judges and prosecutors on toughening up their judicial system.
Maria Chapa Lopez oversees the Middle District of Florida from a corner office on the 35th floor of a downtown Tampa building. She’s the first Hispanic woman to hold that position. (Josh Rojas/Spectrum News)
“Their system became more adversarial like ours. So, to train them in advocacy,” she said. “They didn’t know how to do openings and closings and directs and cross examinations.”
In April of 2016, Chapa Lopez moved to Mexico City to serve as the Department of Justice Deputy Attaché in the U.S. Embassy. That’s where she helped bring the world’s most powerful drug trafficker, El Chapo, to the United States to be prosecuted.
“I worked on the extradition while we were there and met with law enforcement about him,” she said. “I’m not going to take credit for El Chapo. My friends who prosecuted that case did a tremendous job and it’s their case but I was down there when he was extradited.”
Chapa Lopez said last January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cut her tour short to bring her back to Tampa to serve as the interim U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. The U.S. Senate confirmed her nomination and she was sworn into office on Sept. 4, 2018.
“I have to be reminded that I’m the top law enforcement officer in the district,” she said. “I think part of the reason I’m here, have gotten this far is because my parents instilled in me to work hard, to get an education to give back to this country. My entire career has been in public service.”
Chapa Lopez oversees the Middle District of Florida from a corner office on the 35th floor of a downtown Tampa building. She’s the first Hispanic woman to hold that position. Chapa Lopez’s office is full of art that she brought back from Mexico. Including, a few paintings from Jesus Ortiz, one of her favorite artists.
“I asked for just lady justice and he knows how I feel about our flag,” she said. “So, he painted her with our American flag on it.”
Chapa Lopez said she’s the prime example of the American Dream.
“I don’t wrap myself in the red, white and green,” she said. “It’s the red, white and blue.”