WASHINGTON—A federal judge has ordered the wife of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to remain temporarily jailed after she was arrested and accused of helping her husband run his multibillion-dollar cartel and plotting his audacious escape from a Mexican prison in 2015.
Emma Coronel Aispuro, 31, appeared by video conference for an initial court appearance before a federal magistrate judge in Washington, D.C. The judge’s order came after Coronel’s attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, said he would consent to her temporary detention after her arrest at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather explained the charges to Coronel, who spoke to the judge through a Spanish interpreter. She said prosecutors had provided sufficient reason to keep Coronel behind bars for now and noted that her attorney had consented to the temporary detention.
Prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi said the U.S. government believed that Coronel should remain jailed, arguing that she “worked closely with the command-and-control structure” of the Sinaloa cartel, particularly with her husband. Nardozzi said she conspired to distribute large quantities of drugs, knowing that they would be illegally smuggled into the United States.
Nardozzi said Coronel had access to criminal associates, including other members of the cartel, and “financial means to generate a serious risk of flight.” If convicted, she could face more than 10 years in prison.
Her arrest was the latest twist in the bloody, multinational saga involving Guzman, the longtime head of the Sinaloa drug cartel. Guzman, whose two dramatic prison escapes in Mexico fed into a legend that he and his family were all but untouchable, was extradited to the United States in 2017 and is serving life in prison.
And now his wife, with whom he has two young daughters, has been charged with helping him run his criminal empire. In a single-count criminal complaint, Coronel was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana in the United States. The Justice Department also accused her of helping her husband escape from a Mexican prison in 2015 and participating in the planning of a second prison escape before Guzman was extradited to the United States.
As Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Guzman ran a cartel responsible for smuggling mountains of cocaine and other drugs into the United States during his 25-year reign, prosecutors said in recent court papers. They also said his “army of sicarios,” or “hit men,” was under orders to kidnap, torture, and kill anyone who got in his way.
His prison breaks became the stuff of legend and raised serious questions about whether Mexico’s justice system was capable of holding him accountable. In one case, he escaped through an entry under the shower in his cell to a milelong (1.6-kilometer-long) lighted tunnel with a motorcycle on rails. The planning for the escape was extensive, prosecutors say, with his wife playing a key role.
Court papers charge that Coronel worked with Guzman’s sons and a witness, who is now cooperating with the U.S. government, to organize the construction of the underground tunnel that Guzman used to escape from the Altiplano prison to prevent his extradition to the United States. The plot included purchasing a piece of land near the prison, firearms, and an armored truck and smuggling him a GPS watch so they could “pinpoint his exact whereabouts so as to construct the tunnel with an entry point accessible to him,” the court papers say.
Guzman was sentenced to life behind bars in 2019.
Coronel, who was a beauty queen in her teens, regularly attended Guzman’s trial, even when testimony implicated her in his prison breaks. The two, separated in age by more than 30 years, have been together since at least 2007, and their twin daughters were born in 2011.
Her father, Ines Coronel Barreras, was arrested in 2013 with one of his sons and several other men in a warehouse with hundreds of pounds of marijuana across the border from Douglas, Arizona. Months earlier, the U.S. Treasury had announced financial sanctions against her father for his alleged drug trafficking.
After Guzman was rearrested following his escape, Coronel lobbied the Mexican government to improve her husband’s prison conditions. And after he was convicted in 2019, she moved to launch a clothing line in his name.
Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations, said Coronel “has been involved in the drug trade since she was a little girl. She knows the inner workings of the Sinaloa cartel.”
He said she could be willing to cooperate.
“She has a huge motivation, and that is her twins,” Vigil said.
By Michael Balsamo