Listen to the VICE News podcast "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial" for free on Spotify
When he was still on the lam in Mexico and flush with cartel cash, El Chapo built his mother a mansion in the middle of their home village, a virtual fortress that she rarely leaves now that she’s over 90. But with her son now locked away in a high-security Manhattan jail, Maria Consuelo Loera Perez is reportedly packing her bags and planning a trip to the big city.
Earlier this month, Loera announced she'd obtained a “humanitarian visa” that would allow her to visit her son, Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, in the United States. Loera said her daughters, Armida and Bernarda, also obtained visas to make the trip to New York, where Chapo has been held in solitary confinement for over two years.
“I would be absolutely shocked if this were approved.”
The U.S. government’s apparent decision to grant visas to El Chapo’s family surprised federal agents and irked immigrant rights advocates, who point out that it's often impossible for other visa applicants — such as those not related to the world’s most infamous drug lord — to get permission to enter the country.
Lenni Benson, a professor at New York Law School and the director of the Safe Passage Project, which helps asylum seekers and others eligible for the type of relief that Chapo’s family claims to have received, said it’s rare for the U.S. government to budge even in cases of life or death, such as when foreigners are seeking special permission to undergo medical procedures or visit relatives with terminal illnesses.
“I'm shocked,” Benson said. “And yet I've been in the field long enough to know that when people are powerful or there are political interests at play, the State Department makes exceptions. We can think of many examples of people, whether they're former dictators or arms merchants or movie stars, who have gotten special treatment.”
A State Department spokesperson said visa records are confidential under U.S. law and the agency does not discuss the details of individual cases. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees enforcement of immigration law, declined to comment, as did the Drug Enforcement Administration, which led the decades-long hunt for El Chapo.
One federal agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that it’s difficult to even get visas for families of ex-cartel members who cooperate against the likes of Chapo.
“We have these people who make a decision to work with the government, and then we don't give them anything in return. It's terrible,” the agent said. “I would be absolutely shocked if this were approved.”
El Chapo was convicted in February on a 10-count federal indictment, and he awaits a June 25 sentencing hearing where he faces life in U.S. prison with no parole.
With no public confirmation from the U.S government, information about the visas has only come from Chapo’s family, and it’s unclear exactly what type of travel permits they were issued. Several sources familiar with the situation expressed skepticism that Chapo’s close relatives would actually be allowed to enter the U.S., but the family apparently has the support of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
In February, López Obrador traveled to Badiraguato, the remote municipality in the mountains of Sinaloa where El Chapo was raised and once reigned. The area is known as the Golden Triangle because it has long been a source of marijuana and heroin, and the president chose it as the venue to unveil new programs that aim to combat organized crime by providing jobs and education.
While López Obrador was in Sinaloa, a Mexican lawyer reportedly delivered a letter from Chapo’s mother, which was later shared on the president’s official Twitter account. In the letter, Loera said she hadn’t seen Chapo in over five years and described herself as “suffering and desperate.”
“Like any mother, she asked me to support her son,” López Obrador said at the time, adding that he had also agreed to help Chapo’s sisters obtain “humanitarian visas” so that they could visit him “according to the laws and regulations” of the U.S.
A spokesperson for López Obrador did not respond to an inquiry about why and how exactly the Mexican government helped Chapo’s family procure visas for U.S. travel.
Chapo’s mother told reporters that she and her daughters received the visas on June 1 outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Seated in a wheelchair, the bespectacled and soft-spoken Loera thanked López Obrador by name for his help in securing authorization to travel to the U.S. to see her son.
“I hope they allow me to give him a hug,” she said. “I wish they would give him his freedom.”
If Loera is allowed to visit, it’s highly unlikely she'll be allowed to have any physical contact with her son. After twice escaping from prison in Mexico, Chapo is on indefinite lockdown at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal jail dubbed “Little Gitmo” because terrorism suspects are housed there under tight restrictions. A federal judge recently declined Chapo’s plea for outdoor exercise, bottled water, and ear plugs, siding with prosecutors who argued he could be plotting another jailbreak. Chapo’s attorney wrote that his “mental conditions have suffered and his health is deteriorating rapidly."
Visitation has been an ongoing issue for Chapo and his family. His wife, Emma Coronel, is a birthright citizen of the U.S. who is allowed to travel freely, but she has been barred from visits for reasons that were unclear until his trial, when a witness testified that she helped orchestrate his 2016 escape in Mexico through a mile-long tunnel. Chapo’s 7-year-old twin daughters, who were also born in the U.S., have been allowed to see him, along with members of his defense team.
Chapo’s younger sister Bernarda Guzmán was allowed a one-hour jail visit in August 2017, but she told VICE News that her U.S. visa, which she’d held since the ‘90s and used on several occasions, was revoked without warning when she tried to return the following month. In an interview in Chapo’s hometown of La Tuna in June 2018, Bernarda said she was stopped before boarding an Interjet flight to New York.
“I saw two immigration officers coming my way with their nameplates,” she recalled. “They asked me if I could show them my visa. I showed them my visa and they said, ‘You're not allowed into the U.S. at this time.’"
Bernarda said when she later visited the consulate in Mexico to find out what happened, “the lady told me it was due to being related to Mr. Guzmán.” She said the consulate issued her a document stating she was “restricted from visiting the U.S. for an undetermined period.” Another woman at the consulate, she added, told her the visa was likely revoked “because you've been on TV.”
“When the government is less than transparent, we have to guess at what's happening.”
While Chapo’s brother and sons have continued to run their family’s faction of the Sinaloa cartel in his absence, his female relatives deny involvement in the drug business. They have not been charged with any crimes in the U.S., according to publicly available court records.
When VICE News visited La Tuna last year, Loera gave a brief interview before returning to the house that Chapo built, which was guarded by several gunmen. She called his lack of family visits “unfair” and said she would seek a “humanitarian visa.”
“I consider it an injustice, what's being done to him,” she said.
There is no such thing as a “humanitarian visa,” but the Department of Homeland Security does grant “humanitarian parole,” which allows visitors to enter the U.S. “temporarily for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.”
Benson, the immigration professor from New York Law School, noted that Chapo’s family members could also be eligible for standard tourist or business visas, which would allow them to enter the country legally for a short time. Victims of crimes and cooperators who help convict kingpins are also eligible for special visas, but Chapo’s family is unlikely to qualify for those.
Benson described the U.S. immigration system as a “multi-headed beast” with multiple agencies exercising authority and using discretion in ways that can be frustratingly opaque.
“When the government is less than transparent, we have to guess at what's happening,” Benson said.
Chapo is currently fighting for a new trial, arguing that his conviction should be overturned due to juror misconduct. If that effort fails, he will likely spend the rest of his days in ADX Florence, the federal “supermax” prison in Colorado known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies. The remote prison houses a variety of convicted terrorists, spies, and gang leaders, but approved family visitors are permitted.
Chapo’s mother and sisters are currently allowed to speak with him by phone once a week. Loera said earlier this month that Chapo assured her “that he is well, that everything is fine.”
Cover: Maria Consuelo Loera Perez, mother of "El Chapo," arrives at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, Mexico, Saturday, June 1. (AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme)
Emily Green contributed reporting from Mexico City.