US arrests wife of Mexico cartel chief El Chapo on drug charges

Emma Coronel Aispuro,
Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of Joaquin Guzman, departs after the trial of Mexican drug lord Guzman, known as "El Chapo", is seen at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse, in New York, U.S., February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Washington/Mexico City: The wife of Mexican drug cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was arrested and charged in the United States on Monday with helping her husband continue to run his drug trafficking cartel while he was behind bars.

Emma Coronel Aispuro, 31, a regular attendee at her husband's high-profile US trial two years ago where he was convicted of trafficking tons of drugs into the United States, was arrested at Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia.

Her arrest is the highest profile US capture of a Mexican on drug charges since former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos was detained in October, and experts said it indicated a deterioration in bilateral security relations.

Coronel was charged by the US Department of Justice with conspiring to distribute heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines for unlawful importation into the United States. She is expected to appear in a federal court in Washington on Tuesday.

An affidavit attached to the charges also details Coronel's alleged involvement in her husband's escape from a Mexican prison in 2015 and a second attempted prison break in 2016 before the 63-year-old was extradited to the United States.

A lawyer for Coronel could not immediately be identified, and lawyers in Mexico linked to the Guzman family did not respond to a request for comment.

A Mexican official familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified, said Coronel's arrest appeared to be solely a US initiative and that Coronel was not wanted in Mexico.

"[It's] a sign of what's likely ahead," former Mexican ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan said, describing it as an example of US agencies acting with little coordination with Mexican counterparts.

Joint efforts to fight drug trafficking were strained by Cienfuegos' arrest, with Mexico's government moving to restrict US agents' activities in Mexico in retaliation for what it called a breach of trust.

The Justice Department unexpectedly dropped the Cienfuegos case the following month and let him return to Mexico, a move Mexico welcomed as restoring trust between the two countries. Two months later, Mexico dropped its own case against Cienfuegos.

The investigation into Coronel was handled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), rather than the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The charges relate to alleged trafficking activity between 2014-2107 prior to the high-profile Brooklyn trial where Guzman was convicted on drug trafficking offenses.

The indictment documents said Coronel relayed messages on behalf of Guzman to facilitate drug trafficking after his arrest in 2014.

Prosecutors said Coronel also conspired to aid her husband in his July 2015 escape from the Altiplano prison in Mexico through a mile-long tunnel from his cell. An unnamed cooperating witness was paid $1 million to help facilitate a failed second escape a year later, according to the affidavit.

Potential pressure strategy

Coronel, who married Guzman as an 18-year-old beauty queen in 2017, is a dual US-Mexico citizen who lives in Mexico. It was unclear why she was in the Washington area at the time of her arrest.

Prosecutors at Guzman's trial two years ago said he amassed power through murders and wars with rival cartels. Guzman was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years, which the sentencing judge said reflected Guzman's "overwhelmingly evil" actions. Guzman was sent to ADX Florence in Colorado, the nation's most secure "Supermax" prison.

Tomas Guevara, an investigator in security issues at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, said Coronel's arrest might be part of a "pressure strategy" to prompt cooperation from Guzman.

Glamorous life

The arrest on drug trafficking charges of Emma Coronel Aispuro, a former beauty queen and wife of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, follows a telenovela-style life that straddled hyper-violent Mexican cartels, fame and motherhood.

Coronel married young into infamy and had a front-row seat to Guzman's high-stakes cat-and-mouse game with Mexican and US agents hunting him down.

Coronel caught the attention of Guzman, who is more than three decades her senior, when she was a teenaged beauty queen.

They married after she turned 18 in 2007 and had twin daughters, spending their entire married life with Guzman either in jail or on the run as the leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel. Guzman is serving a life sentence in a U.S. jail.

Coronel's fame soared during Guzman's 2019 trial in New York, where she became a media sensation with her designer outfits and the loyalty she showed her husband - even as prosecutors detailed how he kept a string of lovers.

She even became a key character in the court drama when a former lieutenant of Guzman's alleged Coronel played a pivotal role in her husband's Hollywood-style escape from prison in a mile-long tunnel burrowed under his jail cell's shower in 2015.

Piggybacking on her husband's fame and seeking to cash-in on her celebrity outside Mexico, Coronel launched a clothing brand in the United States in 2019 and even appeared in a US reality show about mafia families.

"I consider myself a normal woman," Coronel said in VH1's Cartel Crew show, speaking aboard a yacht. "It's sad that they judge us without knowing us. It's hard."

In media interviews, Coronel emphasised her enduring loyalty to Guzman and her focus on bringing up their twin daughters.

"Emma is like the old narco families in Sinaloa," a former acquaintance told Reuters.

'Love Story'

Steeped in the narco tradition from an early age, Coronel was raised in the mountains of Durango, part of Mexico's "Golden Triangle" of drug trafficking states that includes Sinaloa. Her father was jailed for trafficking drugs in 2017.

Coronel first hit the headlines in Mexico after her 2007 church wedding in rural Durango to Guzman, who at the time was on the run from authorities.

Coronel would be by Guzman's side during several near-misses as Mexican police and U.S. agents tracked him.

At Guzman's trial, his former right-hand man, Damaso Lopez Nuñez, testified how Coronel, along with Guzman's sons, helped orchestrate the audacious 2015 prison escape.

They got a plot of land near the prison, arranged weapons, brought an armoured truck and even had a GPS wristwatch smuggled into Guzman's cell so the tunnel engineers would have exact jail cell coordinates to help their digging, according to testimony.

Guzman was captured again in 2016 and extradited to the United States in 2017.

At Guzman's trial, whenever he entered the court, he would seek Coronel out and wave. They could not speak to each other but their glances caught the attention of the media.

"It was like a love story in complete silence as she wasn't allowed to say anything," said journalist Miguel Angel Vega of the Riodoce newspaper in Sinaloa who covered the trial.

"It's quite interesting to see what's happening in this new case," Vega said. "It's like a soap opera."

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