Last September, an image surfaced on Instagram of Emma Coronel Aispuro, the 29-year-old former beauty queen and wife of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, hosting her seven-year-old daughters’ Barbie-themed birthday party at a sprawling mansion in Culiacan, in the Mexican region of Sinoloa. In one photo, Coronel Aispuro, in a bedazzled silver pencil skirt and stilettos, poses next to a life-sized Barbie Dream House, grinning broadly as she presides over her handiwork.
It was later reported in the Mexican publication Milenio that the party was much less lavish than it appeared, and that the Dream House had been nothing more than a cardboard cutout. Nonetheless, the photos were widely criticized on social media, with many interpreting them as a direct fuck you from Coronel to the millions of people whose lives had been destroyed by her husband’s bloody empire. (For her part, Coronel denied posting the images, claiming that her private Facebook had been hacked by an impostor, even though a photographer claimed she had commissioned him to post them on Instagram.)
Within the U.S. media, Coronel has largely been dismissed as a flighty materialist and a bimbo pageant queen — a “narco Barbie” as Gerardo Reyes, the vice president of the investigative unit at Univision, puts it to Rolling Stone. But during the El Chapo trial, which concluded with a guilty verdict on February 12th, a different portrait of Coronel has emerged, one that is far more complex, unnerving and arguably diabolical than her Barbie birthday party photos and penchant for strappy stilettos would suggest.
As details of Coronel’s involvement in her husband’s empire have surfaced — including testimony alleging that she was heavily involved in orchestrating his escape from a Mexican prison — Coronel has proven to be a cunning, fierce and loyal wife and mother, though it’s an open question as to whether her devotion is driven by love, fear, or some combination thereof. “When you meet a person, sometimes you can say, ‘This person is like this or like that,’” says Anabel Hernandez, a Mexican investigative journalist and author of the book Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers. “With Emma, I have learned that no, it is more complex than that. She is not like a book. She is not easy to read.”
▶ VIDEO | La glamurosa fiesta estilo Barbie de las hijas de 'El Chapo' https://t.co/oxMiA8DVym
Crédito: Instagram antoniotizoc_fotografia pic.twitter.com/XBcc3tbFlM
— Milenio.com (@Milenio) September 17, 2018
A 29-year-old former pageant queen and journalism student more than 30 years her husband’s junior — with a surgically enhanced pout, POM-bottle curves and a taste for Burberry sheaths and Prada bags — Coronel has largely promoted herself as a small-town girl made good, the simple daughter of a bean farmer turned devoted wife and mother. “I will follow to wherever he is,” she told the Los Angeles Times of her husband in a 2017 profile. “I am in love with him. He is the father of my children.”
During the El Chapo trial, Coronel affirmed that image by becoming an implacable fixture in the courthouse, sitting in the second row every day with an omnipresent Cheshire Cat grin. To most observers, she seemed deeply concerned for her husband’s welfare, smiling at him or occasionally blowing him kisses during proceedings. She even petitioned the court to be able to embrace him, a request that was denied by the judge on the grounds that it was “contrary to all the security procedures that have been put in place.” Despite the two’s lack of contact, they apparently managed to negotiate sartorial decisions, one day wearing similar maroon velvet jackets in solidarity.
Even as Guzman’s bloody crimes and marital indiscretions were flaunted one-by-one like slides in a gruesome PowerPoint, Coronel sat primly in the front row, unruffled. When transcripts of their texts, which showed El Chapo asking his wife to hide his weapons, were shown in court, Coronel sat stone-faced. (Coronel has previously denied participating in any criminal activity. She declined to speak with Rolling Stone for this story.) When El Chapo’s mistress, Lucero Guadaloupe Sanchez Lopez, openly sobbed as she took the stand, Coronel laughed. “I think Emma and El Chapo made some show for the media [during the trial],” Hernandez says. “But Emma knows perfectly well how El Chapo is… I’m sure that testimony for her was not a surprise.”
In her interviews with the press, Coronel clung to the devoted wife persona like a life raft, insisting that she simply had no knowledge of his criminal pursuits. “I don’t know my husband as the person they are trying to show him as,” Ms. Coronel told The New York Times as the trial was wrapping up. “But rather I admire him as the human being that I met, and the one that I married.”
While many outlets were incredulous about this narrative, in truth, she may not have had much of a choice but to promote it. Hernandez, who was the first journalist to ever interview Coronel, in February 2016, believes that trotting Coronel out to the media during the trial was in part a strategic move on behalf of El Chapo’s defense team. “She’s young, she‘s more educated than other members of his family, she’s pretty,” she says. “This is my theory: There’s [this] thought maybe if she talks, this could help his public image.
“Emma was in silence for years,” Hernandez adds. “I think she had to talk, to give this interview and then others….not because she wants to, but because he asked her.”
To hear Coronel herself tell it, her fairy tale story with El Chapo began when she was introduced to El Chapo in 2006, while the two were at a local dance in the village of Canelas. The two were introduced by Coronel’s father, Ines Coronel Barreras, when Emma was just 17. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Coronel makes her first encounter with the most fearsome man in North America sound like a scene out of She’s All That: “He was dancing with another girl. I was dancing with my boyfriend — at that time I had a boyfriend — and we crossed paths right in the center of the dance floor. He flirtatiously smiled at me. After a while a person told me, ‘The man asks if you want to dance with him.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ Because in the ranchos, even though you have a boyfriend, you can dance with every person who asks you to dance. So I said, ‘Of course!'”
To hear Coronel tell it, she and Guzman carried on a quiet courtship for a few months after that, marrying in 2007 in what Coronel told the New York Times was “a very simple ceremony with only family and very close friends.” But he appears to have pursued her fairly aggressively, arriving with a motorcade of 400 men to a party announcing her candidacy for a local beauty pageant. Though she was initially considered a longshot to win, she was awarded the title, leading many to assume that Guzman pressured the judges to give her the crown. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Coronel has denied this, bringing it up apropos of nothing during Reyes’ 2016 interview with her, “as if the controversy had been the day before,” he says.)
The couple’s origin story is significant, in that it has become just as much part of the El Chapo mythos in Mexico as El Chapo’s daring exploits themselves. “The story of her romance with a man who is almost three times her age and who made his way through the streets of her village dressed in black, surrounded by dozens of escorts on ATVs, to reach the town square where she is a candidate for the beauty guava contest, feeds [the country’s] fascination with the character,” Reyes says.
In 2011, Coronel gave birth to twins, Emali and Maria Joaquina. Chapo encouraged her to deliver the girls in California so they could be U.S. citizens, and it appears to have been Coronel’s dream to raise her children in the United States. “She told me in the interview that she wanted a better future for her daughters in a country like the United States, because it is ‘organized” and ‘calm,’” says Reyes.
Indeed, it appears that Coronel’s love for her daughters is the driving force behind every decision she makes. “She really cares about her daughters. From comments she makes, I think she really worries about them,” Hernandez says, citing furious comments Coronel made to her about her book’s account of El Chapo raping young women, details of which were reiterated during the trial. “She was very worried about how the daughters see their father.”
For most of their marriage, Guzman has been on the run, and the couple has spent little time together. For a few years, Coronel appears to have avoided the media, instead focusing on caring for her daughters and pursuing a journalism degree in Culiacan. Following his final arrest in 2016, Coronel started to give interviews to the press, presumably out of concern that her husband was being mistreated by Mexican authorities. “The message was that his life was in danger,” Hernandez says. “If she was being sincere or not, I don’t know…I can just tell you, for me as a journalist, that was the message she wanted to send.”
Throughout the trial, Coronel has insisted that she has had absolutely no involvement with or knowledge of the drug world, both during her childhood and during her marriage to El Chapo, and has dismissed all allegations otherwise as fake news. But court testimony, as well as Coronel’s own biography, tell a different story. Coronel’s father, Ines Coronel Barreras, is a medium-ranking El Chapo lieutenant known colloquially as “the One” or “the Father-in-Law.” It has long been rumored that the marriage between Coronel and El Chapo was in part orchestrated as a way for him to climb the ranks in the Sinaloa cartel ecosystem; in fact, Barreras was arrested in 2013 on the border with Coronel’s older brother, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for smuggling firearms and drug trafficking. (Coronel’s younger brother has also been accused of helping to plan El Chapo’s infamous tunnel escape.)
Text messages between El Chapo and Coronel that were read during the trial painted a portrait of a husband and wife chatting about felonies with the same breezy familiarity as a woman reminding her husband to pick up toilet paper. In between flirty notes about enchiladas, the two joke about stashing firearms and giving weapons to their seven-year-old daughter. (“Our Kiki is fearless,” Chapo writes in one text. “I’m going to give her an AK-47, so she can hang with me.”)
In an even more damning revelation during the trial proceedings, Damaso Lopez Nunez, a former cartel lieutenant, testified that she had played a key role in his second prison escape via underground tunnel, sending texts and attending meetings with El Chapo’s underlings to coordinate the breakout. In his testimony, Lopez alleges that Coronel instructed El Chapo’s sons and his underlings to purchase land near the prison where he was being kept, as well as an armored truck and a watch with GPS connectivity to pinpoint the coordinates of his cell. Yet if Nunez’s testimony is to be taken at face value, it had the effect of revealing another side of Coronel.
Coronel has refused to publicly comment on the allegations of her involvement with her husband’s escape. Yet Reyes said he was largely unsurprised by the revelation, as Coronel has consistently been treated like a serious security threat throughout the trial: “there is a reason why the prosecution convinced the judge not to allow her to visit Guzman at the Manhattan prison or contact him by telephone,” he tells Rolling Stone. Hernandez agreed: “What I have learned through all this time, these years, with contacts with Emma and relatives of El Chapo, is that he has a lot of confidence in her. He really trusts her,” she says. “And she’s the only wife, the only woman [in his life], that wants to talk about him, that tries to defend him.”
If nothing else, the El Chapo trial has made clear that the question is not the extent of Coronel’s knowledge of her husband’s drug empire, or even whether her devotion to him is genuine or not. It’s whether or not her actions are those of a criminal mastermind or a terrified woman trying to protect her family at all costs. Hernandez believes it’s the latter, at least in part: “I will tell you one thing. These women [narco wives] do not have any choice. They cannot elect. Once they are inside these relationships, there’s no way to go out,” she says.
In Mexico, there is no shortage of cautionary tales of what happens to beautiful women who cross their powerful, violent husbands — and considering that El Chapo’s mistress before wedding Coronel ended up in the trunk of a car with the initials of a rival drug gang carved into her buttocks and breasts, it’s hard to believe that these tales are not foremost on Coronel’s mind. The fact that she was so young when she married him also raises questions about how much agency she has within the marriage. “Think about another older man who’s not El Chapo, and another woman who’s not [Emma Coronel],” Hernandez says. “She’s just 17 and lives in a little country, her family doesn’t have money, she’s nothing. And the king appears and seduces you, but you’re 17. What kind of decisions can a woman of 17 make?”
Now that El Chapo has been found guilty on all counts, and is likely to spend the rest of his life in jail, many have speculated whether she, too, will face criminal charges. Hernandez says that, in her conversations with El Chapo’s defense team, they have not indicated that the U.S. government has any interest in doing this. But now that the trial is over, her fate is still very much an open question.
It’s certainly possible that Coronel will spend the rest of her life hewing to her devoted wife persona, fiercely defending her husband even while he is behind bars. “Generally speaking, the women of Latin American drug traffickers — wives and lovers — have no choice but to shield their husbands until they are killed or extradited to [the] U.S.,” Reyes says. “There is not a midpoint. You are with them or against them.”
But now that El Chapo has met the latter fate, Hernandez says the question is largely whether Coronel will show up at his sentencing on June 25th. “in that moment we will know if Emma will still be as loyal, or, if you want to call it like this, free,” she says. “I don’t know. I have no idea.”