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It’s hard to tell from recent headlines, but El Chapo Guzmán was just one of three capos who have been running the Sinaloa Cartel. But there’s something about the third one, El Azul, that sets him apart from El Chapo and El Mayo: He might be dead.
Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, alias El Azul, has been in prison three times for drug-related convictions. Each time he secured his release through legal means, serving portions of two sentences and completing a third. With each release, he has resumed his drug-trafficking career, growing more and more powerful.
Esparragoza is probably the least known of the three, but the Mexican and U.S. governments know very well who he is. The U.S. State Department and Justice Department recognize his influence in the the state of Sinaloa and Jalisco, and are well aware of his ability to move marijuana, meth, and cocaine, thanks to his connection with organizations in Colombia and Peru.
He is wanted by both governments, and is considered one of the most powerful drug lords in the world.
That is, assuming he’s alive.
Rumors of his death have circulated since 2014. He was said to have suffered a heart attack. When José Juan Esparragoza Jiménez was arrested in 2015, he identified himself as the son of “the late Juan José Esparragoza Moreno.”
But no authority has been able to confirm El Azul’s death. He remains, officially, a wanted man, though his name was recently removed from Mexico’s most-wanted list.
We know, however, that his financial operator, Mauricio Sánchez Garza, is alive. He was arrested by the Federal Attorney General`s Office (PGR) on Wednesday (Jan. 13) on money-laundering charges.
Esparragoza is known in the narco world as a conciliator, the guy who calms tensions between warring drug gangs. His biggest diplomatic achievement was organizing the summit meeting that put an end to the violent dispute among the Sinaloa, Juárez, Tijuana and Gulf Cartels. During the 1990s and 2000s, U.S. authorities went so far as to dub him “The Peacemaker.”
But he’s more commonly known as El Azul. It is said that the nickname stuck because of the tone of his dark skin, though it’s more dark purple than blue.
It is thought that El Azul was born on Feb. 3 1949, though March 2 is also given as his birthday. His birth took place in Juixiopa, a community of 500 inhabitants that is part of the municipality of Baadiraguato, Sinaloa.
El Azul’s criminal career began just as El Mayo’s did — under the wing of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the “Lord of the Skies” (he used a lot of airplanes to move drugs) who ran the Juárez Cartel until his death in 1997. Through Carrillo Fuentes he became close to such top narcos as Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Rafael Caro Quintero.
Those connections served him well when, shortly after he got out of prison in 1993, he played a key role in forming “La Federación,” the alliance that united the Sinaloa and Juárez Cartels. El Azul was with Juárez before Sinaloa.
Carrillo Fuentes’ death in 1997 ended the formal alliance, but the friendly ties between Juárez and Sinaloa continued. In 2001, the year of El Chapo’s first prison escape, La Federación was resurrected, only to fall apart again three years later. By that time, El Chapo, El Mayo and EL Azul were entrenched as the co-capos of Sinaloa.
Juan José Esparragoza shares with Joaquín Guzmán the distinction of having been put behind bars three times. El Azul’s three imprisonments, however, were from three different convictions.
His first arrest took place in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, in 1970. He had 700 kilos of marijuana in his possession. He served nine months of a five-year sentence, before being released when his conviction was appealed and overturned.
By 1983,his business was based in Mexicali, Baja California. It was there that he was arrested for the second time in March of 1983. Newspaper reports from that time indicated that Esparragoza tried to bribe the judicial police that captured him with 7 million pesos in cash.
He stayed behind bars for only three months before he was released for lack of evidence.
Three years later, in 1986, El Azul was arrested in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City.
This time, things got more serious. The PGR confiscated a number of his properties in the states of Querétaro, Jalisco and Sinaloa. His bank accounts were frozen. He served six years of his seven-year sentence in the Reclusorio Sur prison and the rest in the Altiplano prison in Almoloya, State of Mexico, his partner El Chapo’s current address.
He walked out of jail in 1993, age 44. His most productive years in crime were still ahead of him.
El Azul used his trafficking profits to build a business empire that includes housing units, a shopping mall and an industrial park. The “legit businesses,” considered a money-laundering network by U.S. and Mexican authorities, are operated by members of his organization and family, including his wife María Guadalupe Gastelum Payán and Brenda Guadalupe, Cristian Iván, Juan Ignacio and Nadia Patricia Esparragoza Gastelum.
It was in connection to these business ventures that Sánchez Garza was arrested Wednesday.
Among the Sinaloa Cartel triumvirate, there’s a continuum in terms of publicity. El Chapo seems to like attention, while El Mayo is much more circumspect. El Azul is the shyest of the three. You never hear from him, and not much of him. The fact that authorities aren’t sure if he’s alive or not says a lot about how low his profile is.
“While other Mexican drug traffickers have attracted — and sometimes sought — more attention, Esparragoza Moreno has deliberately maintained a low profile, hoping to avoid scrutiny while he increases his influence and his ill-gotten gains,” said Adam J. Szubin, director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, in 2012.
The strategy seems to have worked. Dead or alive, El Azul has stayed clear of authorities for more than two decades.
— With reporting by Tania L. Montalvo of Animal Político.