Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his 31-year-old wife Emma Coronel Aispuro were more than just partners in marriage — they were also partners in crime.
Coronel, a former teenage beauty queen who married a much-older El Chapo in 2007 just after she turned 18, pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of international drug conspiracy, money laundering, and violating the “Kingpin Act” by having financial dealings with a drug trafficker sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Coronel has been jailed in Virginia since February 22, when she was taken into custody by the FBI after arriving on a flight into Washington’s Dulles International Airport. She faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a fine of up to $10 million, though her guilty plea all but guarantees a lighter penalty. She will remain jailed until her sentencing on Sept. 15, 2021.
A report Tuesday in the New York Times cited an unnamed “person familiar with the case” as saying the plea agreement does not “require” Coronel to cooperate with federal authorities, meaning give up information about cartel activities that could be used to build future cases.
But other sources spotted indications that Coronel has indeed struck a deal with the feds. Reacting to the report that Coronel’s plea agreement does not require cooperation, one former federal law enforcement official said, “Basically, all that means is they won’t need her to testify.”
A spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment.
Coronel’s attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, who also served as El Chapo’s lead trial counsel, did not respond to inquiries from VICE News about the guilty plea.
Coronel addressed the judge directly during her plea hearing, mostly giving one-word replies of “yes” when answering a series of questions asked by Judge Rudolph Contreras to ensure she understood the implications of her guilty plea. Coronel said she "completed studies at the university level" and had no history of drug addiction or mental illness, and that her attorneys had explained that she would be waiving her rights to a jury trial and an appeal.
Contreras asked federal prosecutors to briefly lay out the case against Coronel and explain what facts they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt if the case went to trial. Prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi, who was part of the Chapo prosecution team, said the evidence would include “witness testimony” along with “evidence generated by law enforcement investigation and other means,” without offering specifics.
Nardozzi said Coronel was guilty of conspiring to smuggle “well over” 450 kilos of cocaine, along with heroin and more than 90,000 kilos of marijuana. Nardozzi also said Coronel "controlled commercial and residential properties" owned by El Chapo in Mexico, and "derived income from them by renting them." The prosecutor said the dealings violated the so-called “Kingpin Act” because Coronel is a U.S. citizen and such "financial entanglements" with a sanctioned narcotics trafficker like her husband are illegal.
Nardozzi also said Coronel was involved in plotting to break El Chapo out of prison in 2015, telling the judge she “conspired with others, including Guzmán’s sons, to plan and coordinate Guzmán’s escape.”
The Justice Department initially issued a press release touting Coronel’s “arrest” in February, but days later VICE News reported, based on two sources familiar with the case, that she actually turned herself in and was aware of the charges against her when she came to the U.S.
The Mexican newsmagazine Proceso subsequently published its own report citing unnamed sources as saying Coronel not only turned herself in, but had been holding talks with agents from the FBI, DEA, and Department of Homeland Security as far back as 2017.
A source confirmed to VICE News that Coronel and her attorneys had in fact been discussing the possibility of cooperation with federal law enforcement for years, including around the time of El Chapo’s trial in late 2018 and early 2019.
It’s unclear whether El Chapo himself was aware of the negotiations, though Coronel was not expected to offer any information that could be used against him, since prosecutors had already lined up more than a dozen of his former close associates to testify. The trial ended with a conviction, and El Chapo was sentenced to life with no chance of parole.
Bonnie Klapper, a former federal narcotics prosecutor, told VICE News that even if Coronel’s plea agreement doesn’t explicitly require cooperation, she could still be talking to investigators — and if that’s indeed the case, her lawyer would be wise to keep it secret.
“There’s a possibility that they aren’t putting the cooperation language in the agreement to keep her safe,” said Klapper, who now works as a defense attorney. “Most lawyers want that language because it protects the client, but if Lichtman is worried about leaks, as he should be, he may say ‘Leave it out.’”
Coronel feared for her safety in Sinaloa after El Chapo’s extradition and conviction, according to sources in the city of Culiacán who spoke on the condition of anonymity. She’s roughly the same age as El Chapo’s adult sons, and though she at times tried to paint a picture of a positive relationship, there were tensions within the family and warring factions of the Sinaloa cartel that left her feeling vulnerable, the source said. Without Chapo’s protection, she apparently decided to flee to the U.S. and put her fate in the hands of the Justice Department.
Coronel was a fixture in the courtroom audience during El Chapo’s trial, and the couple was often seen blowing kisses to each other. When a woman who Chapo had an affair with took the stand to testify against him, Coronel and her husband showed up in court wearing matching red velvet blazers in an apparent gesture of romantic solidarity. She is El Chapo’s third wife, and the couple has twin 9-year-old daughters whose whereabouts are currently unknown.
Perhaps owing to her role in his previous prison escape, Coronel was not among those allowed to visit her husband while he was jailed in New York during his trial, though both she and her daughters hold dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship and could travel freely across the border.
Chapo is locked up in ADX Florence, a “supermax” federal prison in Colorado, where he’s housed in solitary confinement. His communication with the outside world is restricted to just his attorneys and a handful of close relatives.
Coronel’s father, Ines Coronel Barreras, is also a Sinaloa cartel drug trafficker who is currently imprisoned in Mexico on drug and weapons charges, along with her brother Edgar Coronel Aispuro. Both men face extradition to the United States.
Charging documents against Emma Coronel say she “grew up with knowledge of the narcotics trafficking industry” and her family maintained a “historical relationship” with El Chapo. After she married the Sinaloa cartel leader, court records state, Coronel was “aware” that her husband and his adult sons, collectively known as “Los Chapitos,” orchestrated multi-ton shipments of cocaine, heroin, meth, and marijuana to the U.S.
Los Chapitos — Iván, Ovidio, Joaquín, and Alfredo Guzmán — are also identified in Coronel’s charging documents as being behind their father’s 2015 tunnel escape. Coronel met with the brothers to plan the escape, and discussed bringing a GPS-enabled watch to El Chapo in prison so that the tunnelers could pinpoint his location.
After El Chapo was recaptured in 2016, charging documents say, Coronel again began plotting to bust him out, providing $1 million in cash to purchase land near the prison to use as a tunneling site. A cooperator told the FBI that after El Chapo was moved to another prison, Coronel reported delivering $2 million in bribes to a Mexican prison official in a failed effort to get him moved back so that the second tunnel escape plan could continue.
The details of Coronel’s role in El Chapo’s prison escape were first divulged in trial testimony from Damaso Lopez Nuñez aka El Licenciado, a former top leader of the Sinaloa cartel who appears to be the unnamed “Cooperating Witness 1” in Coronel’s charging documents.
While cooperating with U.S. authorities can in some instances be a death sentence for cartel members, El Chapo’s trial revealed that even the highest-ranking members are willing to flip in exchange for lighter sentences. The son of fugitive Sinaloa cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada testified that he first reached out to the DEA about cooperating after receiving permission to do so from both his father and El Chapo.
Chapo’s sons are all fugitives in Mexico and prime targets for U.S. law enforcement. One senior U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the cases against Los Chapitos would likely be unaffected by Coronel’s case, regardless of whatever information she might be providing to the FBI.
“Right now, the Chapitos are among the most powerful organizations in Mexico that are flooding the U.S. with heroin, fentanyl, meth and so we are going to pursue them rigorously,” the official said. “That is independent of what happens with Emma Coronel.”
The official noted that Coronel was never a major player in the drug trade in her own right, but she embraced the spotlight that came with her marriage to El Chapo. Coronel’s verified Instagram account has over 660,000 followers, and she appeared on the VH1 reality TV show “Cartel Crew” in 2019, conducting her interview aboard a private yacht. She previously insisted that her lavish lifestyle was financed legitimately, telling Telemundo in a December 2018 interview that she has several businesses and also owns “some farmland” in Mexico.
“In the grand scheme of things, would I say Emma is a ‘queenpin’? Absolutely not,” the U.S. law enforcement official said. “She married a trafficker involved with different types of drugs. She wanted to make a name off her name and off her family’s name, and ultimately it’s greed that caused her arrest.”
Deborah Bonello contributed reporting to this story.