By MICHAEL BALSAMO, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The wife of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested in the United States and accused of helping her husband run his multibillion-dollar cartel and plot his audacious escape from a Mexican prison in 2015.
Emma Coronel Aispuro, a 31-year-old former beauty queen, was arrested at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Monday and is expected to appear in federal court in Washington on Tuesday afternoon. She is a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico.
Her arrest is the latest twist in the bloody, multinational saga involving Guzmán, the longtime head of the Sinaloa drug cartel. Guzmán, 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 U.S. 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 Guzmán was extradited to the U.S.
Coronel was moved to the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia late Monday night and is expected to appear by video conference for her initial court appearance on Tuesday. Her attorney Jeffrey Lichtman declined to comment Monday night.
As Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Guzmán 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 “hitmen,” 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 Guzmán’s sons and a witness, who is now cooperating with the U.S. government, to organize the construction of the underground tunnel that Guzmán used to escape from the Altiplano prison to prevent his extradition to the U.S. 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.
Guzmán was sentenced to life behind bars in 2019.
Coronel, who was a beauty queen in her teens, regularly attended Guzmán’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, Inés 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 Guzmán 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.
Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.