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BROOKLYN, New York — Before she found herself fleeing through a sewer with a naked drug lord, Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez was a rising political star in her home state of Sinaloa. A young member of Mexico’s main opposition party, Sanchez was elected to the state legislature in 2013 to represent her hometown of Cosalá, in the heart of an impoverished mountain region where many farmers grow marijuana and opium poppies to make a living.
Sanchez knew her constituents well. She was raised in the mountains, and she had spent the two years prior to her election canvassing weed farms on behalf of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The Sinaloa cartel leader is believed to have fathered at least one child with Sanchez and treated her as both a part-time housewife and a deputy in his drug business.
Sanchez was removed from office in 2016 after her relationship with Chapo became public, including the allegation that she used a fake ID to visit him in a maximum-security prison while she was pregnant. She was arrested in June of 2017 while trying to cross the border from Tijuana to San Diego, and she pleaded guilty last year to cocaine conspiracy charges linked to her role in the cartel. She now faces a minimum of 10 years to life in federal prison.
Sanchez’s best shot at redemption — and early release — came last week, when she was called to testify against Chapo at his ongoing trial at the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. In nearly three hours of dramatic testimony, which is set to continue when the trial resumes Tuesday, the 29-year-old Sanchez described how she was sucked into a relationship with Chapo that she found impossible to escape. She portrayed herself as a victim who was coerced into purchasing tons of marijuana and laundering money on Chapo’s behalf.
But a look back at her case — through court documents, archival news reports, and interviews — reveals a more complicated picture. Sanchez has so far made herself out to be a reluctant bit player in Chapo’s cartel, claiming on the witness stand that she could not extricate herself from his drug business, and that the kingpin threatened her with death if she ever betrayed him. Some evidence suggests she was an active and willing participant.
An attorney for Sanchez declined to comment on the record about her case, citing her pending testimony and sentencing.
The bathtub escape
Two of Sanchez’s family members were murdered within weeks of each other in January 2014. The first victim was her sister. Her throat was cut in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, in what was described at the time as a domestic dispute. Later that month, Sanchez’s ex-husband was gunned down by a group of unidentified men with AK-47s in Cosalá.
A month after the killings, in February 2014, Sanchez was sleeping alongside Chapo at one of his safe houses in Culiacán when DEA agents and Mexican marines broke down their steel-reinforced front door. According to Sanchez’s testimony, she and Chapo escaped the raid through a tunnel hidden underneath his bathtub that connected to the city’s sewer system. Chapo, who Sanchez said was naked while running through the tunnel, was captured less than a week later.
The day after the capture, on Feb. 23, 2014, Sanchez reached out to one of Chapo’s workers about drugs, according to a criminal complaint filed against Sanchez by federal prosecutors in San Diego. The court document says Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents learned about the inquiry by Sanchez because they had flipped a Sinaloa cartel member and wiretapped the cartel’s elaborate communications network.
Sanchez, using the screen name “Tere” on a BlackBerry device, allegedly sought to contact "Los Menores," a code name that the cartel used for Chapo’s sons. Sanchez said she wanted to deliver Chapo’s "things," which the HSI informant took to mean drugs, and claimed she had information about the location of some of Chapo’s "merchandise."
Sanchez also allegedly asked the informant about a smuggling operation in Ecuador led by a man known as “Chef,” who was “responsible for coordinating the transportation of multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine” for Chapo. Chef, whose real name is Oscar Antonio Berrocal Sandi, was later arrested in Colombia for drug trafficking.
The same informant claimed Sanchez told him that after the bathtub tunnel escape, she urged Chapo to travel with her to Cosalá, her hometown in the mountains, “because she worked there as a deputy” or diputada, her official title in office. When her relationship with Chapo was later revealed, the Mexican press gave her the nickname “Chapodiputada.”
Instead of joining his mistress, Chapo decided to head to the beach to reunite his wife, Emma Coronel, and their young twin daughters. It was a fateful decision: He was arrested with his family at a hotel in the city of Mazatlán, and eventually transferred to El Altiplano, a maximum-security prison where many other high-profile drug lords are housed.
Sanchez allegedly used a false identification document to visit Chapo in El Altiplano in 2015. Mexican authorities released grainy photos that show a pregnant woman who resembles Sanchez inside the prison with Chapo’s lawyers. She denied that it was her in the photos. She faced criminal charges in Mexico over the visit, but the case was never resolved because she was later arrested in the United States.
Sanchez kept her job as diputada until June 2016, when her relationship with Chapo became public. After Chapo escaped from El Altiplano in July 2015 and was recaptured on January 8, 2016, Mexican prosecutors said Sanchez had spent the night with him on New Year’s Eve, a few days prior to his arrest, but that allegation has not been confirmed.
Sanchez was ousted from office amid the scandal, which led to questions about how a young woman with no political experience was elected in the first place. Drug cartels often try to influence local elections in Mexico, and more than 130 candidates were killed during campaigning last year. While the leaders of Mexico’s opposition party tried to distance themselves from Sanchez, some of her colleagues in Sinaloa spoke up to defend her.
“We have never had a single problem with her, she has been a good deputy,” Héctor Melesio Cuén Ojeda, a candidate for governor of Sinaloa, said at the time. Another lawmaker from the opposition party called her "a victim of the system." And another told reporters that her “only sin is having some sentimental involvement, you can say, with the wrong person."
Much of Sanchez’s own case remains under seal, and she was also the subject of pretrial motions by federal prosecutors who sought to limit what Chapo’s lawyers could ask her on cross-examination. As a result, some questions about her relationship with Chapo are still unanswered, but she filled in some of the blanks during her testimony last week.
Dating El Chapo
Sanchez testified that she met Chapo in 2010, but it’s still unclear exactly how. The following year, Chapo sent one of his men to deliver a cellphone to Sanchez. They began to correspond with each other and the romance bloomed, even though Sanchez, an attractive woman with high cheekbones, fair skin, and long hair that she wore dyed blonde or red, was more than 30 years younger. Because Chapo had secretly installed commercial spyware on her phone, prosecutors were able to obtain hundreds of text messages they exchanged in early 2012, revealing the peculiar nature of their relationship.
The messages, which were shown to the jury in Chapo’s case, show Sanchez and the cartel boss swooning over each other while they discuss the logistics of a large marijuana shipment. Chapo had given her instructions to buy 400 kilos from farmers in the Golden Triangle, and she was in the process of finalizing the arrangements.
“I love you,” Chapo told her. “Congrats, because you’re the best.”
“You too, love,” Sanchez replied. “I want you to be proud of me and I want you to know that from where I stand, in front of the virgin, that I truly love you and miss you very much. If there’s a way for you and I to be together forever, I’ll be the happiest woman in the world, because so far I have been thanks to you. I love you [heart emoji].”
In other exchanges, Sanchez referenced a child named Rubencito.
“This is your son,” she told Chapo in one message.
“Hello, my king. I congratulate you because you’re a real man,” Chapo responds before turning back to the weed business. “Love, check how much there is [available] for you to buy it all, but you have to rip the bags and check properly, so you don’t buy any more with seeds.”
It’s unclear whether this child was fathered by Chapo. The name Ruben suggests the baby may have been born during Sanchez’s relationship with her murdered ex-husband, since he was also named Ruben. Chapo is known to have fathered at least 16 children through marriages to three wives, but he is said to have 23 or more kids through other relationships.
“The mafia kills people who don’t pay”
Sanchez testified that she often felt sorry for the marijuana farmers who did business with Chapo, and claimed she refused to buy their product on credit because she feared Chapo would not pay them back. She also claimed that she used Chapo’s money to purchase low-quality weed because she wanted to help the poorest farmers — and because she secretly hoped Chapo would disapprove and summon her back from the mountains.
Sanchez maintained during her testimony that she had no choice but to work for Chapo. The text messages show Chapo sending her not-so-veiled threats, but they also suggest she thought she was spreading his money around in the area she would soon come to represent in the state legislature.
“Look, the mafia kills people who don’t pay or people who snitch, but not if you’re serious, love,” Chapo told her in one message.
“I’m not afraid of that, love,” she replied. “I’ve thought about things before, I know that I’m not doing anything bad. On the contrary, I think that this is good for people, and even more so with you, because you’ve helped the ranches a lot and I’m proud and hold my head up high, guided by you, love… And if you like what I’ve done and you want me to continue, I will continue until whenever you want me to. I like it, at least I feel useful.”
Sanchez testified that Chapo enlisted her to create “straw businesses” that would be used to launder drug money. One front company based in Mexico was supposed to sell fruit juice, but Sanchez said it never imported or exported any juice. She said Chapo gave her instructions about who to hire to run the business: “He simply said I should find a low-income person who could be easily manipulated so when I gave an order, it would be satisfied.”
Sanchez identified the person she hired as a man named Pancho. According to the criminal complaint filed against Sanchez by federal prosecutors in San Diego, Pancho was “involved in the transportation and distribution of large quantities of drugs, including cocaine.” The complaint also says U.S. authorities intercepted text messages between Sanchez and Chapo’s personal secretary where she references Pancho handling over $600,000.
Sanchez testified that she and Chapo began to drift apart at the end of 2012, which is what prompted her to run for office in Cosalá. The timeline of their relationship remains fuzzy, but it’s clear they were still seeing each other occasionally at least until early 2014, when the bathtub tunnel escape occurred. Prior to that incident, Sanchez testified that Chapo told her “whoever betrayed him, they were going to die, whether they were family or women.”
Arrest at the border
Sanchez was arrested in 2017 when she tried to cross the border into San Diego using an expired visa. She was apparently unaware that she was under indictment in the U.S., and court documents state that when she was detained, she ”tried to flee back to Mexico” and “resisted officers’ efforts to stop her.” Another court document, filed by Sanchez’s attorney in August 2017, states that she was “injured during her arrest and has crushing back pain.”
There are conflicting accounts about why exactly Sanchez was trying to enter the United States. One version of the story is that she was trying to cross over to shop for clothes. The other is that she was planning to seek asylum for herself and her two children. She reportedly brought the kids, ages 12 and 3 at the time, with her from Culiacán to Tijuana, and left them at a nearby restaurant on the Mexican side of the border in the care of an assistant before she attempted to cross over. According to the Sinaloan newspaper RioDoce, the children were eventually returned to Culiacán and placed in the care of grandparents.
The current location of Sanchez’s children — and the identity of their father — remain a mystery. Other witnesses who have testified against Chapo have received immigration benefits that allow their family members to legally reside in the United States. It’s likely that Sanchez hopes to receive the same deal, along with a reduced sentence. More information about the arrangement is expected to emerge Tuesday when she continues her testimony.
Cover: Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, a deputy of Mexico’s National Action Party (PAN) in the state of Sinaloa, denied her links with the drug trafficker Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán at a press conference in June 2015. (Photo: Especial/RML, GDA via AP Images)