He was the most discreet of Mexican cartel kingpins, the opposite of the high-living, mass-killing capo. If Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, also known as “El Azul” or “The Blue,” ordered massacres of enemies, it wasn’t well known.
Now it appears that even his death is tinged with mystery. The 65-year-old drug lord for the powerful Sinaloa cartel was reported dead by Riodoce, a well-regarded weekly in the criminal group’s stronghold of Culiacan, which said it relied on law enforcement and family sources.
The paper said it could not confirm where Esparragoza died, and that it might have been in either Guadalajara or Mexico City. It said he didn’t die in a shootout with a rival cartel or with federal authorities — but of a heart attack.
“He was a very discreet person. In fact, you never heard of him organizing a killing or starting a scandal,” said Javier Valdez, Riodoce’s editor. “He was very intelligent and, of the Sinaloa capos, he was the least visible. His movements were invisible.”
Federal authorities in Mexico City told The Times they did not have information about Esparragoza’s death but were working to determine whether it was true.
They have reason to be deliberate. This year they announced the slaying by Mexican soldiers of a Knights Templar cartel boss whom they had declared dead in a shootout four years before.
Michael S. Vigil, a former top Drug Enforcement Administration official whose book “Deal” documents his time fighting the cartels, said Esparragoza used to be called “the Diplomat.”
“He was used a lot by the Sinaloa cartel to negotiate the feuds, conflicts with other cartels in Mexico,” Vigil said. “He is one of Mexico’s drug trafficking pioneers. He kept a very low profile even though he could have run his own cartel. But he didn’t want to be a lightning rod. He killed a lot of people but did it surgically. It wasn’t wholesale violence like ‘Chapo’ Guzman or the Zetas.”
Vigil said Esparragoza was “relied upon by the Sinaloa cartel to handle a lot of things.” He knew better than most the Colombian sources and supply lines and established drug routes, both through Mexico and the U.S., Vigil added.
The FBI had Esparragoza on its most-wanted list and was offering $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
If true, his death follows the high-profile arrest in Mazatlan in February of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the legendary Sinaloa cartel leader who was Mexico's most powerful drug lord and was counted as a billionaire.
Guzman, whose rags-to-riches story turned him into a kind of folk hero for many Mexicans, ran a criminal organization that has expanded to more than 60 countries in North and South America, Europe and Africa.
His arrest provoked questions about what dynamic it would have on Mexico's hyper-bloody drug war and who would succeed him.
Most of the attention focused on Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a 66-year-old former farmer with a knack for business and a low profile. But Esparragoza, who was even less known, was regarded as a possible successor, said Jorge Chabat, a professor at Mexico's Center for Economic Research and Teaching.
“He was an important capo,” Chabat said, who added that if Esparragoza indeed was dead, it would accelerate a trend toward the cartel’s leadership becoming younger.
Chabat said he did not expect this would unleash more violence because the Sinaloa cartel has always been more hierarchical and businesslike than other cartels, especially the Zetas, who have turned to kidnapping and rampant murder. He said the Sinaloa cartel has largely seen extreme violence as being bad for business.
But Monday gave light to a bloody day in Sinaloa. Early in the morning, 12 bodies were found in a car in the Sinaloa municipality of San Ignacio. Authorities said they were investigating, but had no information about the killings or whether they were related to cartel wars.
Vigil said the Zetas several times tried to assassinate Esparragoza, but he was "highly mobile," like Guzman. "He didn't tell a lot of people where he was at. He was very cautious even in his own cartel."
He added that, despite the low profile he kept, Esparragoza became extremely rich.
“He’s probably worth in the area of at least $100 million. He had a lot of ranches, homes throughout Mexico and some were rustic, but a lot of them were mansions,” Vigil said. “But he was not ostentatious. He was what we would call in the mafia like a Carlo Gambino, or old Mustache Pete.... He knew when you become highly visible, you are a target.”
Becerra reported from Mexico City and Serrano from Washington.
Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.