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Sinaloa Cartel boss ‘El Azul’ Esparragoza reported dead

June 9, 2014
The US State Department offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to the capture of 'El Azul' Esparragoza.

The US State Department offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to the capture of ‘El Azul’ Esparragoza.

Mexican authorities are investigating reports that veteran drug trafficker Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” has died of a heart attack at the age of 65.

Citing anonymous police sources, Sinaloa newspaper Riodoce reported on Sunday evening that Esparragoza had died the previous afternoon. He is said to have damaged his spinal column in a car crash two weeks earlier and apparently suffered the heart attack upon trying to get out of bed.

Riodoce reported that his body has already been cremated and that the ashes will be taken to Culiacan, Sinaloa in the next few days. The Mexican government has not yet confirmed or denied Esparragoza’s death but the federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) is reportedly investigating the rumors.

Born in Badiraguato, Sinaloa on February 3, 1949, Esparragoza became a member of Mexico’s federal police force in the 1970s before joining the Guadalajara Cartel, then the nation’s dominant drug trafficking organization. In 1986 he was arrested in connection with the abduction, torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena and sentenced to seven years of imprisonment.

Upon release he assumed a leading role in the Juarez Cartel and later forged an alliance between that organization and the Sinaloa Cartel, through what would become known as the Federation. In recent years, Esparragoza is said to have led the Sinaloa Cartel alongside Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

The U.S. State Department offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture and/or prosecution of Esparragoza, while the Mexican government offered another 30 million pesos. In 2005 he was briefly ranked as the FBI’s second most wanted criminal after Osama Bin Laden.

If confirmed, Esparragoza’s death would be a major blow to the Sinaloa Federation, coming less than four months after Guzman’s arrest. Esparragoza always kept a much lower profile than the infamous “El Chapo,” but he was considered a highly experienced drug trafficker and an accomplished negotiator.

Earlier this year I discussed Esparagozza’s role in the Sinaloa Cartel with drug war analyst Sylvia Longmire. “He’s been very under the radar, everybody’s been talking about ‘El Chapo’ and obviously ‘El Mayo’ stepping in now that ‘El Chapo’ has gone. But ‘El Azul’ is a really good negotiator and he’s keeping that pipeline going. He’s been a major key in negotiating with rival cartels,” Longmire said. “He’s definitely much more diplomatic and charismatic and he’s very good at his job. He’s a businessman and he knows how to keep things stable, so I think his role has become much more prominent as time progresses.”

Esparragoza’s apparent death could enhance the prospect of internal divisions and a violent power struggle within the Federation, although no such fallout occurred after Guzman’s arrest when some analysts predicted that it would. One figure with sufficient gravitas to step in and take Esparragoza’s place is Damaso Lopez, alias “El Licenciado,” the man credited with overseeing Guzman’s escape from the maximum-security Puente Grande in 2001. His son, Damaso Lopez Junior, is Guzman’s godson is also regarded as a possible future leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

While some of Riodoce’s sources indicated that Esparragoza had died in Mexico City, others suggested that he died in Guadalajara.It would come as no surprise if he had been residing in the latter city, as shortly after his arrest Guzman reportedly told his captors that Esparragoza was most likely in Guadalajara.

In recent years the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has aggressively targeted Esparragoza’s money laundering operations, many of which are based in and around Guadalajara.

In July 2012 OFAC blacklisted nine entities and 10 individuals linked to Esparragoza under the Kingpin Act. These included several businesses run by members of his family in the municipality of Tlajomulco on the southern outskirts of the Guadalajara metropolitan area. Most recently, on February 27, OFAC designated Colombian-Mexican citizen Hugo Cuellar Hurtado, the owner of two Guadalajara pawn shops and a 57-acre ostrich ranch in Tlajomulco, for laundering drug money on Esparragoza’s behalf.

Given that Esparragoza’s death has not been confirmed – and the reports that his body has already been cremated indicate that it may be difficult for the government to verify – it remains possible that he could have faked his own death in a bid to avoid further scrutiny.

This is not uncommon in the world of Mexico’s drug gangs. Nazario Moreno Gonzalez of the Knights Templar benefited from the Mexican government’s claims that it killed him in December 2010, as this allowed him to operate without being hunted by the authorities until he was finally killed in March 2014.

In her 2010 book “Los Señores del Narco,” investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez also suggested that Amado Carrillo Fuentes, Esparragoza’s former boss in the Juarez Cartel, and Ignacio Coronel, with whom he worked in the Sinaloa Cartel, both faked their own deaths in order to escape the spotlight and retire in peace.

With Esparragoza having reached retirement age, it remains possible that he could have done the same. Unless the government can prove otherwise, conspiracy theories that he is still alive and well are bound to circulate.

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