U.S. authorities trumpeted the recent “arrest” of Emma Coronel Aispuro, the 31-year-old wife of former Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, but sources familiar with the situation tell VICE News she actually turned herself in and was prepared to face federal charges when she landed Monday at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.
Sources who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the information say Coronel’s surrender signals the existence of a cooperation agreement, where she could provide information or testimony in exchange for leniency in her own case.
Coronel made her initial court appearance Tuesday, with her attorneys agreeing to keep her jailed indefinitely as her case proceeds. She stands accused of conspiring to smuggle illicit drugs into the U.S., and helping her husband tunnel out of a maximum-security prison in Mexico. She has not yet entered a plea in response to the charges.
Coronel’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, who also served as Chapo’s lead trial counsel, accused federal authorities of leaking when asked about the surrender. VICE News does not disclose the identities of confidential sources, unless authorized to do so by the sources themselves.
“I’m stunned that the feds would do this,” Lichtman said. “There’s zero chance it’s anyone else. And it’s sickening. She’s got kids. I’m happy to respond to this allegation if you tell me who leaked it. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to respond to a cowardly anonymous leaker with a pointed on the record rejoinder.”
The Department of Justice declined to comment, as did a spokesperson for the FBI, which is handling Coronel’s case.
Federal prosecutors revealed the charges against Coronel two years after her husband was convicted of federal drug, weapons, and money laundering charges and sentenced to life in U.S. federal prison with no parole. It’s still unclear why Coronel was detained now, or what information she might be willing to provide.
Chapo, 63, is the father of twin 9-year-old daughters with Coronel. The location of the girls is unknown with both parents now in U.S. custody. Like their mother, the twins were born in California and hold dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship, allowing them to travel freely across the border. Other Chapo relatives were unable to secure visas to attend his 2019 trial in the U.S., but Coronel was a fixture in the courtroom, and his daughters were among the few visitors he was permitted while he was jailed in New York.
By turning herself in, Coronel creates a strong argument for a reduced sentence on her criminal charges, one source said. Coronel currently faces a minimum of 10 years to life in prison, plus a fine of up to $10 million.
“Her attorney at sentencing is going to argue, ‘She took it upon herself to face charges,’ she didn’t make the government go out and arrest and extradite her,” the source said. “She came out of Mexico. It would have been quite a process to get her extradited.”
While Coronel won’t be of much use against her spouse, who is serving out his sentence in a “supermax” prison cell in Colorado, the criminal complaint against her also mentions Chapo’s adult sons Iván, Ovidio, Joaquín, and Alfredo, who have taken over their father’s faction of the Sinaloa Cartel and are all wanted by U.S. authorities. Ovidio and Joaquín are under indictment in the same Washington, D.C. court where Coronel is charged.
Chapo’s sons—collectively known as Los Chapitos or Los Menores (The Kids)—are roughly the same age as their step-mother Coronel, with the eldest believed to be around seven years her senior. At least publicly, they are thought to have a cordial relationship, with Coronel reportedly sharing a photo on Instagram of a Christmas gift sent by one.
In the past, Coronel has denied any involvement in her family’s illicit activities. During Chapo’s trial, she gave interviews insisting that her lavish lifestyle is financed legitimately.
“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.”
But according to charging documents filed February 17 by an FBI special agent, Coronel “was aware of multi-ton cocaine shipments, multi-kilo heroin production, multi-ton marijuana shipments, and ton quantity methamphetamine shipments,” smuggled to the U.S. by her husband’s cartel. She also allegedly “was acting as a go-between and messenger” between the kingpin and his sons during the planning and execution of his infamous 2015 escape from Mexico’s Altiplano prison through a nearly mile-long tunnel dug into the shower of his cell.
Coronel plotted to smuggle a GPS watch to Chapo in prison, which was then used to pinpoint his location while planning the tunnel, according to court records. The FBI also claims Coronel passed messages to facilitate drug deals while her husband was imprisoned, and schemed to bust him out again prior to his 2017 extradition to the U.S., providing a $100,000 down payment on land near the prison to use as a tunneling site. When the plan fell apart because Chapo was moved to another prison, Coronel allegedly told an FBI cooperator that a bribe of “approximately $2 million” was paid in a failed effort to get him sent back.
One senior U.S. law enforcement official who spoke with VICE News said Coronel’s apprehension “was a long time coming… It wasn’t something that came out of the blue,” but they questioned how much valuable evidence she could provide against Chapo’s sons.
“We’ve been investigating Los Chapitos for many, many years, and quite frankly we know enough about them independent of her or anyone else,” the official said. “The cases against them are already ongoing and already are pretty strong on their own.”
Coronel is Chapo’s third recognized wife, though testimony and evidence presented at his trial revealed him to be a prolific philanderer, with many female companions over the years. In footage released by Mexican authorities of Chapo being booked into prison in 2016, he tells his jailers that he’s married to Alejandrina Salazar, the mother of his sons Iván and Alfredo. But he’s known to be enamored of Coronel and was often seen blowing kisses at her during his trial.
Lichtman, the attorney for both Chapo and Coronel, declined to say whether Chapo had been notified of his wife’s arrest. The ex-kingpin is imprisoned under extremely tight security, with special orders that limit his communication with most family members, though he is allowed to speak with lawyers.
A former teenage beauty queen from the state Durango, Coronel is the daughter of another prominent Sinaloa Cartel member, Ines Coronel, and she wed Chapo when just 18. The FBI alleges she “grew up with knowledge of the narcotics trafficking industry,” and the criminal complaint notes that her father and brother are both imprisoned in Mexico on drug offenses.
Cooperation with U.S. authorities can be a death sentence in the world of Mexican cartels, but defections of high-level members are not unheard of. The case against Chapo hinged on testimony of over a dozen star witnesses, including multiple high-ranking members of the Sinaloa Cartel. The son and brother of Chapo’s longtime partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada both took the stand as cooperators. El Mayo’s son claimed he received permission from his father and Chapo to meet secretly with DEA agents prior to his 2009 capture.
Beyond the sources who confirmed the situation with Coronel to VICE News, Bonnie S. Klapper, a former narcotics prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, the Brooklyn court where Chapo’s trial was held, noted that several aspects of the case offer circumstantial evidence that her arrest was not entirely unexpected. In particular, Klapper noted, federal authorities used a criminal complaint rather than an indictment to detain her and initiate court proceedings.
Klapper, who is now a defense attorney and has no direct involvement in the cases of Coronel or Chapo, called the charging documents “unusual” and speculated that the former cartel boss’ wife may already be cooperating.
“It’s possible El Chapo said, ‘I don’t want my wife to spend the rest of her life in jail, I want a decent place for my kids to grow up, let’s arrange some things,’” Klapper said. “Maybe this was sort of an elaborate show. They arrest her, make it very public, are fighting for her detention because she’s already cooperating or she wants to cooperate and they want to throw people off the track.”