Mexico Nearly Captures Elusive Capo, Avoiding Election ‘Game-Changer’

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One of Mexico’s foremost traffickers narrowly avoided capture by federal forces earlier this month, fueling speculation that the government is pursuing a major arrest capable of influencing the upcoming presidential election.

As reported by Riodoce, Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” was nearly nabbed this weekend in a nighttime raid of a party at a ranch in the Pacific state of Colima. The estimated 120 troops — supported by two Black Hawk helicopters — who participated in the operation checked the identification of all the adults present at the quinceañera party. They then determined that Esparragoza had fled, they withdrew without making any arrests.

Esparragoza is one of the highest ranking figures in the Sinaloa Cartel, often described as Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization. Law enforcement agents and journalists alike have frequently painted him as a conciliatory figure, capable of striking deals to increase the scope of his network and and reaching workable arrangements with rival cartels. At the same time, he is often overlooked in analysis of the Sinaloa Cartel, and his name rarely appears in the newspapers.

But while he doesn’t have the public profile of Sinaloa figures like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who is described as the world’s most wanted drug trafficker, or Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who in 2010 granted an interview to one of Mexico’s most famous journalists, Esparragoza is nonetheless a formidable figure with one of the longest careers at the top of the Mexican drug trade. A former federal police officer, Esparragoza worked for the Guadalajara Cartel of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo in the 1980s, the Juarez Cartel under Amado Carrillo in the 1990s, and has been a cornerstone of the Sinaloa Cartel for the past decade.

While it wouldn’t make the same splash as the detention of Guzman, arresting Esparragoza would clearly represent a major coup for the federal government, with the potential to shake up the presidential election scheduled for July 1. Analysts have long chattered about the possibility of a so-called “June Surprise,” through which the federal government would boost the fortunes of the candidate from Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN) with the sudden arrest of Guzman, or another similarly heavyweight figure. When Guzman was reportedly almost arrested by federal authorities in Los Cabos earlier this year, many said that this was the prelude to just such an electoral gambit.

However, with the PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota locked into a distant third place (she is more than 20 points behind frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto according to some polls) such a gambit would be unlikely to genuinely shake up the presidential race. But the arrest of Esparragoza certainly would shake up Mexico’s criminal landscape. The last time a Sinaloa figure of comparable stature was removed from the scene –when Ignacio Coronel was killed in a shootout with federal troops in 2010– it had a significant impact on his zone of influence, in the Pacific coast region around the states of Jalisco and Colima. His death precipitated the breakup of his network into a series of smaller networks, especially the Jalisco Cartel–New Generation, which are unable to maintain control of the area to the same degree that Coronel’s group did.

Similarly, Coronel’s death encouraged his enemies to double down on their attempts to rip Jalisco and the surrounding states from the grasp of the Sinaloa Cartel. Consequently, groups like the Zetas flooded the region, co-opted local gangs to fight against the remains of Coronel’s network, and sparked a significant increase in violence in the region. Much of the bloodshed has been centered in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco and the nation’s second largest city, which was the site of a mass body dump last year.

Today, however, the Sinaloa Cartel has also been forced to deal with attempts to weaken its degree of support within Sinaloa, ostensibly its foremost stronghold. As InSight Crime has reported, enemy cells comprised of members of the Zetas, the Beltran Leyva Organization, and the Juarez Cartel have been operating in the remote Sierra Madre region of the state for much of this year. As early as last year, the same groups were operating in the state capital of Culiacan. And Guasave, a mid-sized town in the middle of the state, has long been dominated by the BLO rather than the Sinaloa Cartel.

Consequently, the arrest of Esparragoza or a comparable figure may increase perceptions of the Sinaloa Cartel as a declining organization, decreasingly capable of holding onto its turf. This would almost certainly result in further attempts to move in on Sinaloa Cartel turf.

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