Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera became infamous for daring jailbreaks in Mexico only to end up serving life in prison in the United States. Now his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, has managed to avoid a similar fate.
The 32-year-old Coronel was sentenced Tuesday to just three years in prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to charges that she helped her husband run his drug trafficking empire, facilitated one of his prison escapes in Mexico, and violated U.S. sanctions by spending his illicit fortune. She also paid nearly $1.5 million to the U.S. government.
It could have ended much worse for Coronel, who faced up to 14 years for her crimes under federal sentencing guidelines. Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., asked her judge for leniency, calling for her to serve just four years behind bars and fueling speculation that she’d struck a deal to cooperate.
Coronel’s attorneys and federal prosecutors made the case to sentencing Judge Rudolph Contreras that she only played a minimal role in the cartel and that her crimes were committed simply because she was married to El Chapo.
“The defendant was not an organizer, leader, boss, or other type of manager,” prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi said. “Rather, she was a cog in a very large wheel of a criminal organization.”
A soft-spoken Coronel addressed the court in Spanish before the judge handed down the sentence, asking for forgiveness and making a plea for leniency so that she could be free to raise her 10-year-old twin daughters, who were fathered by El Chapo.
“I know that you may find it difficult to ignore the fact that I am the wife of Mr. Guzmán Loera, and perhaps for this reason you feel there’s a need for you to be harder on me, but I pray that you not do that,” Coronel said. “I am suffering as a result of the pain that I've caused my family.
“My family brought me up to know what respect was and gratitude and honesty, but they also taught me to accept those mistakes that I made,” she said. “And for that reason, I am here before you asking for forgiveness.”
Coronel then invoked her children, saying, “Those are precisely the same values that I wish to teach my daughters. They are the primary most important reasons why I’m here before you.”
She added: “They were already growing up without the presence of one of their parents, and for this reason I beg you to not let them grow up without the presence of their mother.”
The light sentence has raised eyebrows among ex-prosecutors who handled similar cases against high-level drug traffickers and their associates. “Downward departure,” or a sentence below the range called for by federal guidelines, is typically reserved for individuals who agree to assist the government in some capacity, David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, told VICE News.
“They’re treating her like a cooperator,” said Weinstein, who now works as a defense attorney. “These are the types of circumstances where people are involved in large-scale drug trafficking conspiracies and are benefiting the kingpin and helping the kingpin. You usually don’t get downward departure unless you’re providing substantial assistance.”
“I know that you may find it difficult to ignore the fact that I am the wife of Mr. Guzmán Loera, and perhaps for this reason you feel there’s a need for you to be harder on me, but I pray that you not do that.”
Coronel, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico, was taken into custody by FBI agents on Feb. 22 after arriving at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. While federal authorities announced that Coronel had been “arrested,” sources familiar with her case told VICE News she was aware of pending charges against her and came to turn herself in.
Coronel has been held since February at a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, and is now expected to be transferred into the federal prison system to serve out her sentence. She will receive credit for time served and could be released in just over two years.
If prosecutors truly believed Coronel had only played a minimal role and was merely El Chapo’s wife, it's unclear why she was even charged in the first place because her prosecution would be a waste of time and resources, according to Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York. Klapper, now in private practice, said Coronel’s sentence “is a very clear demonstration of how prosecutors can manipulate the sentencing guidelines to either punish or reward a defendant.”
One source familiar with Coronel’s case, who requested anonymity to speak openly about federal law enforcement practices, said she first approached investigators about the possibility of cooperating shortly after El Chapo was convicted in February of 2019. There was “a lot of pushback” from senior officials about working with her, the source said, but the case agents involved were “comfortable talking to her and seeing if anything comes of it.”
The expectations for what Coronel could deliver to help federal investigators were low, the source said, and it’s still unclear what, if anything, she ultimately provided to help her cause.
“Her role in the drug organization would have been a facilitator or communicator,” the source said. “She had a clean image. The politicians were able to hobnob with her where most of them wouldn't want to be caught in a picture with [El Chapo].”
Coronel’s lead attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, who also represents El Chapo, previously accused federal authorities of leaking information about Coronel’s case. Lichtman subsequently told the New York Post, “If there was cooperation that was going on or was about to go on, it’s been destroyed.”
At the sentencing on Tuesday, Lichtman argued that Coronel deserved a lighter sentence because of “the danger that she finds herself in due to the numerous unattributed and anonymous government agents who said she cooperated with the government.”
“What it’s done, it’s made it so I don’t know if she can ever go back to her home again in Mexico based on the garbage that was spread by these anonymous federal law enforcement agents,” Lichtman said. “Her life will be affected forever upon her release from prison. She didn’t bargain for that in any plea agreement.”
Lichtman said that Coronel faced harsh conditions of confinement, partly due to COVID-19 precautions at the jail where she’s been held but also due to her high profile. Coronel was confined to a cell by herself for 22 hours a day, Lichtman said, and allowed out only for one hour during the day and one hour at night. She has not received any visits from family or friends, he said.
Lichtman also told the judge that Coronel had done “humanitarian work” in Mexico, including handing out disaster relief supplies to people affected by a 2017 earthquake in Mexico. He said that her purpose in life going forward would be to raise her kids not to follow in her footsteps.
“She wants to do better for her young children and wants them to know they should not make the mistakes that she made,” Lichtman said. “She wants them to be a good example going forward.”
El Chapo’s ‘messenger’
The charging documents filed against Coronel portray her as being part of El Chapo’s innermost circle but not directly involved in drug trafficking. The couple married in 2007 when Coronel was just 18 and had recently been crowned beauty queen in a local pageant in her home state of Durango. El Chapo was nearly 32 years her senior.
Coronel is El Chapo’s third wife, and U.S. prosecutors allege she “knowingly benefitted” from his drug trafficking “in multiple ways,” including by renting out properties that he’d bought with drug money. That activity, prosecutors said, violated U.S. Treasury Department sanctions under the Kingpin Act, which was used to target El Chapo and his financial network.
After El Chapo was captured in 2014 and sent to a maximum-security prison in Mexico known as El Altiplano, U.S. prosecutors say Coronel served as “a messenger” and passed along orders “related to drug debt collection, movement of drugs and weapons, and acts of violence.” Coronel also allegedly helped orchestrate El Chapo’s 2015 escape through a nearly mile-long tunnel that led into the shower beneath his prison cell.
Coronel delivered cash bribes that totaled nearly $1 million to Altiplano prison personnel, prosecutors said, which bought El Chapo preferential treatment and allowed his tunnel escape to go off as planned. Coronel also “arranged for a GPS watch disguised as a food item” to be delivered to her husband, which allowed tunnelers to pinpoint his cell inside the prison. After his escape in July 2015, prosecutors said, El Chapo “relocated to a mountain location within the Mexican state of Durango” and reunited with his wife.
After El Chapo was recaptured in January of 2016, prosecutors allege that Coronel again worked to help plan a second escape from El Altiplano by delivering another $1 million in bribes. She was also “aware” of another $2 million in bribes paid out after he was transferred to another prison. The escape plan fell apart when El Chapo was extradited to the U.S. in January 2017, leading to his eventual conviction on drug trafficking, money laundering, and weapons charges.
Coronel was a fixture in the audience at El Chapo’s trial and the couple could often be seen blowing kisses to each other during the proceeding. They once wore matching outfits, and El Chapo once asked the judge for permission to give her a hug—a request that was denied.
Coronel, who is something of an icon in “buchona” fashion, the ostentatious style associated with women adjacent to the Mexican drug trade, became a celebrity in her own right. She appeared on the reality TV show Cartel Crew and has given several TV news interviews, where she denied being involved in criminal activity.
“We have businesses,” Coronel told Telemundo in December 2018. “I can’t talk about them because the media turns everything I say into a big scandal…. I own some farmland, things like that, but I’d rather not discuss it.”
In sentencing Coronel, Judge Contreras noted that putting her behind bars for a long time would do little to dissuade anyone else from joining the Sinaloa Cartel. In fact, he said, there was little indication that prosecuting El Chapo had any impact on the cartel’s operations.
“One can make a plausible argument that even the removal of Guzmán from the conspiracy has not resulted in a reduction of harm to the public,” the judge said. “There appears to be no shortage of replacements to fill the defendant’s slot in the organization.”
Contreras noted Coronel’s “impoverished” upbringing and the involvement of her family members in the drug trade, and indicated that he believed that she was a victim of her circumstances who was very young and impressionable when she married El Chapo.
“I hope you raise your twins in a different environment than you’ve experienced to date,” Contreras said in his parting words to Coronel. “Good luck.”
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