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Three months on, El Azul’s apparent death remains shrouded in mystery

September 11, 2014
There is no hard evidence to prove that 'El Azul' Esparragoza died in June.

After months of investigation. there is no hard evidence to prove that ‘El Azul’ Esparragoza died in June.

U.S. and Mexican intelligence agencies have not uncovered any evidence to support recent reports of the death of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza Moreno, according to an investigation by Mexican newspaper Reforma.

A veteran but discreet drug lord, Esparragoza, 65, is thought to have assumed control of the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, alongside Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada after the arrest of their partner Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in February.

Rumors of his apparent death first circulated on Sunday, June 8, when Sinaloa newspaper Riodoce reported that he had died from a heart attack two weeks after damaging his spinal column in a car accident. The Mexican government never confirmed the news but Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former head of international operations, said Mexican federal security sources told him that members of Esparragoza’s family had confirmed his death.

Shortly after the news of Esparragoza’s death, Bloomberg reported that Mexico was awaiting the results of DNA tests that would conclusively prove whether or not he was dead. Yet the results were never made public and it is unclear how they could have been conducted given that all the reports of Esparragoza’s death stated that his remains were immediately cremated.

Now it appears that Esparragoza could still be alive. In late August, Jesus Murillo Karam, the head of Mexico’s federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR), declared that it had found no proof that he is dead. Esparragoza was reported to have died at a hospital in Guadalajara or Mexico City, but investigations by U.S. and Mexican authorities have uncovered no evidence to support this, Reforma stated.

The rumors of his death were fueled by conversations overheard on the telephones and radio frequencies of cartel members in Guadalajara, according to Reforma’s sources. In some conversations it was mentioned that Esparragoza had died on Saturday, June 7, while others revealed that he had been receiving treatment at the Hospital Real San Jose in Zapopan, part of the Guadalajara metropolitan area.

Having investigated a number of hospitals in the city, Mexican intelligence agencies believe Esparragoza may have visited Real San Jose but they do not think he died there, Reforma noted. Their investigations revealed that no one of the name, age or appearance of Esparragoza died that weekend, nor were there any records of anyone that could pass for him being cremated at any of Guadalajara’s funeral parlors.


Mexican authorities believe the man seen here in the Hospital San Jose Real may be ‘El Azul’.

Reforma said it had access to the Hopsital Real San Jose’s 41 CCTV cameras but found no evidence of Esparragoza’s presence there on Saturday, June 6. However, the following day at 8:06 p.m. a mustachioed man wearing dark pants and a grey t-shirt and cap was filmed talking with a doctor in the emergency ward. It is impossible to conclusively prove that it was Esparragoza due to the poor quality of the footage, but the man fits his appearance and – according to Reforma – Mexico’s intelligence agencies suspect that he may have been treated at the hospital that weekend.

The following week, three Masses were held in honor of Esparragoza in churches in Culiacan, Sinaloa. Mexican newspaper La Jornada claimed the authorities had received reports indicating that Esparragoza may actually have died at a hospital in Culiacan where he had been registered under a fake name. However, PGR staff told La Jornada that they had carried out investigations in the states of Sinaloa, Nuevo Leon and Jalisco without uncovering any clues as to his fate, while Sinaloa Governor Mario Lopez Valdez dismissed the news of his death as “just rumors.”

The latest suggestion that Esparragoza is dead came from a man claiming to be his son, Jose Juan Esparragoza Jimenez, who was arrested by marines in Culiacan in late August. Esparragoza junior claimed that his father died in Mexico City after suffering a car accident. He said he was cremated in Mexico City and his ashes were then taken to Culiacan.

But Reforma reported that the Mexican authorities grew suspicious of the detainee – who is awaiting trial after being caught in possession of over 26 kilos of methamphetamine, 369 grams of cocaine, 74 grams of marijuana, two military-grade firearms, 75 rounds of ammunition and 2.7 million pesos ($204,000) in cash – because he seemed overly willing to discuss his father’s death. Furthermore, the U.S. and Mexican intelligence agencies have no records of Esparragoza having a son of his name, even though they have exhaustive records on his family members, many of whom have been designated for money laundering under the U.S. Kingpin Act.

Esparragoza, who was imprisoned three times in the 1970s and 1980s, had always sought to keep a low profile and it may be that friends and family members invented the death in order to help him evade the U.S. and Mexican authorities, who have posted rewards worth over $7 million for information leading to his arrest and/or prosecution.

If so, he would not have been the first Mexican drug lord to play dead in order to escape unwanted attention. The Mexican government famously claimed to have shot dead Knights Templar kingpin Nazario Moreno Gonzalez in December 2010 but it was not until March this year that he was finally killed.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes and Ignacio Coronel, two of Esparragoza’s close companions from the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels respectively, are also rumored to have faked their own deaths: the former in a botched plastic surgery operation in Mexico City in 1997; the latter in a military raid on his home in Guadalajara in 2010.

Given the lack of transparency and trust in the government in Mexico, few will believe that Esparragoza is truly dead until they are presented with irrefutable evidence.

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