The wife of the world’s most notorious drug cartel boss, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, has appeared in court charged with helping him run his drug empire from jail, a day after she was arrested at Washington’s international airport.
Emma Coronel Aispuro, a 31-year-old Mexican-American who married the drug kingpin in 2007 after he spotted her in a beauty pageant, is also accused of helping organise her husband’s breathtaking jailbreak in 2015, which involved a mile-long tunnel leading from his prison shower and a motorbike adapted to run on rails from one end to the other.
After a hearing by the Washington DC district court, at which Coronel appeared by video, she was ordered detained without bond, pending trial. Prosecutors had argued she represented a flight risk with access to funds and alleged that the “defendant worked closely with the command and control structure of the drug trafficking organization known as the Sinaloa cartel – most notably with her husband”.
Coronel had apparently believed herself safe enough from prosecution to risk a trip to the US. At her husband’s 2018 New York trial, she was a daily presence in court, chewing gum behind large sunglasses. The trial led to a sentence of life plus 30 years in prison and an order to forfeit more than $12bn. But Coronel claimed to know nothing about the Sinaloa cartel, that was jointly run by her husband, maintaining that the couple had a modest irrigation firm and that El Chapo was just a “humble man” who the media had made “too famous”.
“Emma Coronel is very naive to the American justice system,” said Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration, who pointed out that allegations about her role in the 2015 prison escape had come up in Guzmán’s trial.
“She must have felt very secure and safe that nothing would happen to her.”
She was sufficiently confident of her untouchability to give a television interview in November 2019 drinking sparkling wine on the back of a yacht in Miami to a reality show called Cartel Crew, which mostly consists of relatives of convicted traffickers complaining about feeling judged.
“Sometimes you just want to do what you see other people do. We want to be normal,” Coronel said, and asked advice on setting up a clothing line in her husband’s name.
Those options looked less viable on Tuesday, after Coronel’s arrest at Washington’s Dulles airport, and her scheduled initial appearance in a courtroom to face charges of “conspiring to knowingly and intentionally distribute” shipments of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.
She was 17 when Guzmán turned up with his entourage to see her win a pageant at the coffee and guava festival in her family’s village of Canelas. She was born in Santa Clara, California, when her mother had been visiting relatives there, but had grown up in rural Mexico.
The affidavit from the FBI special agent Eric McGuire to the Washington DC district court points out that she would have known what she was marrying into, as her father, Inés Coronel Barreras, was a mid-level member of the Sinaloa cartel, designated by the US as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” and that her brothers were also in the family business.
“Coronel knows and understands the Sinaloa cartel is the most prolific cartel in Mexico,” McGuire said. “Coronel was aware of multi-ton cocaine shipments, multi-kilo heroin production, multi-ton marijuana shipments, and ton quantity methamphetamine shipments.”
The affidavit also quoted handwritten letters from Guzmán giving instructions to his cartel subordinates, which McGuire said he had obtained from an informant, and which had been delivered by Coronel, with whom Guzmán has nine-year-old twins.
“The twins’ mother will tell you and my children something. Please be alert, compadre. She will explain,” one of the letters said. “The twins’ mother will bring a message to all of you, so that you all see it personally.”
McGuire alleged that while Guzmán was in Altiplano prison in Mexico, Coronel relayed instructions to his sons (from previous marriages) on arranging his escape. They bought a plot of land a mile from the jail in 2014, began putting up a house, but then dug a tunnel towards the prison. Coronel and her brothers-in-law also discussed smuggling a GPS watch to Guzmán so they could guide the tunnel to his cell, accord to the arrest warrant.
In July 2015 he slipped down a hole dug into the floor of his shower and out of the tunnel which was equipped with lighting, ventilation and the motorcycle on rails believed to have been used to haul equipment and excavated earth.
Falko Ernst, the senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group, suggested there was an element of geopolitics behind Coronel’s arrest.
“She’s not a big fish. She’s a narco-celebrity. But in terms of her functions within the Sinaloa scene, she’s not a big player,” Ernst said.
“So this act of detaining her and keeping her in the United States is more a symbolic act. It perpetuates the message that the United States will still be a factor in what we call the ‘war on drugs’ here in Mexico.”
Coronel’s TV appearances and attempts to monetise her husband’s image and build a profile as an influencer were more than just vanity, according to a close observer of the Sinaloa cartel in the city of Culiacán, who said: “She had to work.”
Federal prosecutors argued in a New York court that over a quarter of century, El Chapo had amassed a fortune of at least $12,666,181,704, but despite that remarkably precise figure, efforts to seize the imprisoned kingpin’s assets have so far struggled to make progress.
“Not all of that fortune exists,” said the observer. “El Chapo had money, of course, but not like everyone thought.”
On Tuesday, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, tersely described the arrest “a matter that the United States will decide”.
The president, commony called Amlo, urged US prosecutors to provide details on the case. Amlo also suggested the Coronel case could be linked to a case against Mexico’s former public security secretary Genaro García Luna, who was arrested in Dallas in 2019 on drug trafficking charges and is awaiting trial in the United States.
Amlo has taken a generally gracious tone with the Guzmán family and has refused to speak ill of El Chapo. The president greeted El Chapo’s elderly mother, María Consuelo Loera, in March last year and acknowledged she had requested assistance with obtaining a US visa to visit her son at a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.