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Arrest of El Chapo’s Wife Draws Sympathy and Scorn in Mexico

MEXICO CITY – Emma Coronel, the wife of notorious drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, is to remain in police custody as her lawyers review her bail options after her shocking arrest on February 22.

In a virtual hearing, prosecutors alleged that Coronel is a flight risk because she “worked closely with the command and control structure of the drug trafficking organization known as the Sinaloa Cartel, most notably with her husband.”

FBI agents arrested Coronel yesterday at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. on charges that she was “aware” her husband and his organization coordinated large international drug shipments and “understood the drug proceeds she controlled during her marriage to Guzmán were derived from these shipments.”

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Prosecutors also allege that she was involved in organizing Guzmán’s second escape from prison in 2015, and that she attempted to organize a third escape after his rearrest prior to Guzmán’s 2017 extradition. Guzmán is currently serving a life sentence in a supermax prison in Colorado after a highly public trial in New York at which Coronel was a constant presence.

News of her arrest came as a surprise to observers of organized crime.

“It’s not been received very well (in Sinaloa). Because she’s the mother of the family and has been in one way or another an indirect victim of the entire process of her husband,” said Dr. Juan Carlos Ayala Barrón, a professor of narco culture and identity at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa.

Ayala Barrón said that Coronel had become an extremely popular “buchona,” an ostentatious style of fashion and physical appearance for women often glorified in narco culture. Along with being the mother of twin girls fathered by Guzmán, she’s a social media influencer on Instagram with nearly 500,000 followers. In 2019, she appeared on VH1’s Cartel Crew show, talking with other family members of drug traffickers about how to create a brand from her husband’s infamy.

“[Her arrest is] very suspicious,” said Ayala Barrón. “Here, some of us are thinking that it could be a political game or something from the United States government.”

Coronel’s arrest came as bilateral security relations between Mexico and the U.S. remain strained since the very public detention of former top military official, General Salvador Cienfuegos, on drug trafficking charges in October 2020. The Mexican government applied backroom pressure in the final month’s of Donald Trump’s presidency to have the general extradited back to Mexico to face investigation at home. But the charges were swiftly dropped, much to the chagrin of U.S. officers involved in the investigation.

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On Tuesday morning, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed Coronel’s case in his morning news conference and suggested that the arrest could be related to the investigation of Genaro García Luna, the former public security chief of Mexico who is currently awaiting trial in the U.S on charges that he took bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.

Bonnie S. Klapper, a former prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, the Brooklyn court where Guzmán’s trial was held, said that it was “unusual” for prosecutors to move forward with a criminal complaint, which requires a judge to rule that there is probable cause for an arrest, rather than an indictment which uses more basic language and is easier to use as just cause.

“Sometimes, strategically, a prosecutor will do that. So the person they’re arresting sees the strength of the evidence and says, you know what, I better cooperate. I better not fight this one,” said Klapper.

But whether she would have any information about former security chief García Luna, who left office in 2012, isn’t obvious from the criminal complaint. Instead, the document connects her more closely to other Sinaloa cartel figures, including her step-sons by marriage to Guzmán.

Coronel’s name first became linked to the potential criminal activities when one of Guzmán’s principal lieutenants, Damaso López, turned state’s witness and testified against the kingpin in January 2019. López detailed how Coronel, along with Guzmán’s sons, played an integral role in organizing his 2015 escape from Puente Grande prison.

In the criminal complaint, an anonymous Witness 1, gives information that appears nearly identical to what López said previously in his testimony against Guzmán. The charges also allege that Coronel paid millions of dollars in bribes after Guzmán’s 2016 arrest in an attempt to organize a third escape before his eventual extradition to the U.S., another claim made by López during Guzmán’s trial.

The criminal complaint also mentions Guzmán’s four adult sons, Iván, Alfredo, Ovidio, and Joaquín Jr., along with Ismael Zambada, known as El Mayo, one of the founding members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Two of Guzmán’s sons, Alfredo and Ovidio, face criminal charges in the same Washington, D.C. court where Coronel’s case is being heard.

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El Mayo Zambada has remained on the lam for decades and is infamous for never having spent a day in prison, although his brother and two of his son’s have been arrested and extradited to the U.S., with two of them serving as witnesses against Guzmán during his trial in 2019.

Like the sons of Guzmán and Zambada, Coronel was born into the business. Her father and brother were arrested for drug trafficking connected to the Sinaloa Cartel in 2013 and her uncle is alleged to be the deceased “King of Crystal”, Ignacio Coronel, though Coronel has in the past denied any relationship to him.

But how involved she was in the family business is now a matter for the courts to decide.

“There really seem to be two types of women in the drug business. One are women who are in the drug business because of, let’s just say, poor romantic choices,” said Klapper, who since 2012 has worked as a defense lawyer in private practice and represented several women involved in the drug trade. “Then there are the women who just like the men, like the drug business. They want to be powerful in the drug business.”

Mexico has a long history of women involved in the drug trade, from the infamous Dolores Estévez, aka Lola la Chata, who controlled much of the drug trade in Mexico in the first half of the 20th century, to Sandra Ávila Beltran, known as the Queen of the Pacific, who was a prominent player in the Sinaloa cartel in the 1980s and 1990s.

In recent years, there has been an increase in female assassins as well as mid to high-level operators.

One of Guzmán’s main money launderers was Guadalupe Fernández Valencia – the only female to appear on the indictment that helped send the kingpin to prison. She pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in a Chicago court in 2019 and is currently awaiting sentencing. Digna Valle was the only high-ranking woman in her family’s drug trafficking dynasty in Honduras before she was arrested and helped bring down the network which was also run by her son and brothers.

But in Klapper’s opinion, Coronel fits more closely into the first group – those who are involved as a consequence of their romantic relationships.

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“I don’t think they’re going to be able to prove that Emma was one of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel. But you may have to do things that facilitate your husband’s business,” said Klapper. “You might have to move money around. You might have to more often than not, engage in financial transactions to hide money. But less likely that you’re going to be heavily involved in the drug trade itself.”

Although conspiracy charges against Coronel could lead to serious prison time, not everyone in Sinaloa is sympathetic.

Dr. Tomás Guevara Martínez, the coordinator of the Laboratory for the Psychosocial Study of Violence at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, said a lot of local opinion on the Sinaloa Cartel has changed “since that sad day, which everyone now calls ‘Black Thursday’.”

On October 17 2019, Mexican law enforcement arrested one of Guzmán’s sons, Ovidio, but released him after cartel gunmen laid siege to the state capital of Culiacan. The streets filled with young men from the cartel brandishing firearms that rivaled those of the military, and showed the government’s weakness in combating criminal groups. The incident was a major embarrassment for the then young government of Mexican President López Obrador, who directly ordered the release of Ovidio. In total, at least 14 died, including several civilians.

“The idolization is over, the people were really disgusted, they were angry and now they are questioning the presence of these groups,” said Guevara, acknowledging that the Sinaloa Cartel has long been an accepted and welcome presence in much of the state. Many see Guzmán and Zambada as Robin Hood figures, who for decades have bought the marijuana and poppy plants tended by impoverished farmers in clandestine gardens dotted around the mountains of Sinaloa.

“People are seeing all this now with a negative perception, there are already social movements of young people that are, let’s say, questioning narco culture, narco music, etc. the stuff that only apologizes for these people.”

When Guzmán was arrested in 2014, noisy protesters took to the streets asking for the drug lord’s release. After Coronel’s arrest yesterday, Culiacan was quiet. But like her husband, Coronel will now be sleeping behind bars for now.

Keegan Hamilton contributed to this report.

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