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The story of wealthy Mexican businessman José Susumo Azano Matsura’s seven-year war with Sempra Energy has it all: assault rifle-toting police, leaked national security contracts, allegations of bribery and drug smuggling and diplomatic intrigue.
These are five takeaways from my investigation into Azano and Sempra:
Azano is a serious dude.
An heir to a Mexican development empire, Azano has made his own fortune trading in high-level surveillance technology. In his best known deal, Azano sold almost a half-billion dollars‘ worth of Israeli-made spy gear to the Mexican government. This is stuff that can get into your computer and then turn on the camera to watch you.
He also likes to flaunt his wealth. Azano drives Lamborghinis and Bugattis, dropped $90,000 on a bottle of champagne at a Las Vegas club and went on a $13 million spending spree a few years ago snapping up properties in the United States.
For two decades, U.S. authorities have investigated him for everything from drug trafficking to extortion to money laundering, but never charged him until last February’s arrest for alleged illegal campaign donations to San Diego politicians.
To understand Azano’s interest in San Diego politics, you need to understand his fight with Sempra.
The big question surrounding the criminal case against Azano is why he would want to get involved in San Diego politics. Prosecutors have said Azano wanted to develop along downtown San Diego’s bay, but have only provided scant evidence of that claim.
A better answer is his feud with Sempra.
In 2008, Azano decided to finance a Mexican rancher’s legal battle with Sempra over a mostly uninhabited piece of land in Baja California. The rancher claims Sempra officials stole the land from him. Azano agreed to bankroll the rancher’s lawsuit, in exchange for a big share of any winnings.
Sempra officials blame Azano for orchestrating a 2011 police raid on the company’s liquefied natural gas plant in Baja California, and pushed the FBI to go after Azano. After Sempra’s request, the feds turned up the heat on Azano. He began seeking out meetings with San Diego politicians while federal investigators were closing in. In at least one of those meetings, Azano asked a politician to tell prosecutors to crack down on Sempra’s activities in Mexico.
Sempra is a huge player in Mexico – and hugely controversial.
Sempra is one of the largest private energy companies in Mexico. With billions of dollars in energy projects up for grabs in the coming years, Sempra is in a great position to make even more money there.
The company’s greatest victory in Mexico came in the mid-2000s when it beat out numerous other Fortune 500 companies in the race to build a liquefied natural gas plant in Baja California.
But the plant’s construction came with a series of corruption allegations that linger to this day.
Among the most explosive accusations:
• That Sempra had an improper financial relationship with the governor of Baja California, someone who made a key decision that killed the project of Sempra’s biggest rival.
• That Sempra bribed Ensenada politicians with a $7 million slush fund.
• That Sempra stole the land of the rancher tied to Azano.
Sempra hasn’t been charged with anything related to the Baja California natural gas plant and officials deny any wrongdoing.
A federal investigation of Sempra went nowhere.
In early 2011, the FBI, Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department investigated the corruption allegations against Sempra in Mexico. The feds zeroed in on the $7 million bribery accusation involving the Ensenada politicians. Agents initially believed the money was evidence of a quid-pro-quo in exchange for quicker permits for the plant.
The FBI asked Sempra to investigate the allegation itself. The company hired an outside law firm to investigate, and it found no wrongdoing. That was good enough for the feds, and they declined to prosecute.
But it doesn’t appear that investigators looked at all the corruption allegations against Sempra in Mexico. The FBI summary of the case doesn’t mention any investigation of Sempra’s financial ties to the Baja California governor, nor does the summary show the feds got to the bottom of claims that Sempra stole the rancher’s land.
Instead, Sempra officials used the FBI probe for another purpose. On at least two occasions in meetings with investigators, Sempra officials lobbied the feds to go after Azano.
The Sempra-Azano feud reached the highest levels of the U.S. and Mexican governments. Azano lost.
After Sempra officials made their case to the feds against Azano in 2011, investigators renewed their push against him. Proof that the U.S. government orchestrated a plot against Azano is hard to pin down. But evidence of a scheme to cripple him exists.
A Mexican news outlet published a dossier purportedly written by the Department of Homeland Security and given to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s cabinet that outlined a strategy to take down Azano. (A DHS spokesman refused to confirm or deny the report’s authenticity.) According to the New York Times, a powerful general with ties to Azano was denied the chance to become Mexico’s defense secretary after intervention from the U.S. ambassador. The former Mexican ambassador to the United States confirmed that Mexican and U.S. diplomats were aware of the feud between Azano and Sempra.
It was around this time that Azano started introducing himself to San Diego politicians. Aside from meetings, prosecutors say Azano illegally donated more than a half-million dollars to various campaigns. It’s against the law for foreigners to make political contributions in the United States.
Azano is out on bail awaiting trial. If convicted, he faces federal prison.
Read the Whole Series
Here are links to all the stories in A Cross-Border Clash of the Titans and a timeline that lays out the whole tale:
Part II Sidebar: The Politician Who Gave Sempra Mexico
Part III: The Fall of José Susumo Azano Matsura