The wife of Joquín “El Chapo” Guzmán played a key role in successful plot to break the accused drug lord out of a maximum-security prison in 2015, according to a former high-ranking leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Emma Coronel Aispuro, Guzmán’s American-born wife who is more than 30 years his junior, passed numerous messages between El Chapo the plotters working to break him free, according to Dámaso López, a one-time lieutenant to Guzmán who testified against him this week in Brooklyn federal court.
For the first time, López illuminated critical details in the infamous escape, including how Guzmán used his wife — who has not been charged with a crime in either Mexico or the United States — to help coordinate the plot. López also gave new insight into how the jail-breakers managed to pinpoint the location of El Chapo’s cell inside the prison, and which high-ranking Mexican officials were bribed in order to make everything run smoothly. (A lawyer for Coronel declined to comment on the allegations López made during this testimony.)
The plan to spring El Chapo began within weeks of his stunning capture on February 22nd, 2014, in the Baja California Sur beach town of Mazatlán, López told jurors. Through his lawyer, Guzmán sent a letter to López, 52, asking him to “meet with the mother of the twins,” referring to Coronel, 29, who has young twin daughters with the 61-year-old Guzmán.
López obliged his boss, and in March of that year, he met Coronel in Culiacán, where she told him that her husband was “was thinking of taking the risk of again escaping from prison, and was wondering if I could help with that,” he recalled on the stand. “I said sure.”
Later that spring, López met once more with Coronel, as well as four of Guzmán’s sons, and on Guzmán’s orders relayed through Coronel, López began to look for properties near the prison where they could buy land, build a warehouse, and start digging a tunnel, López said. Through Coronel’s messages, Guzmán instructed his sons to take over the tunnel operation, as well as smuggling a GPS watch to Guzmán in order to zero in on his location in the jail.
When the group met up again in early 2015, López said, Coronel told the plotters that El Chapo was already reporting that he could hear digging beneath his cell. In fact, the tunneling was so loud that other prisoners were complaining about it. But according to López, by that time, the director of Altiplano prison was bought and paid for by the cartel, and wouldn’t be getting in the way.
Finally, on July 11th, 2015, for the second time in 15 years, Guzmán slipped out of a maximum security prison. This time, rather than being rolled out in a laundry cart, Guzmán broke through the concrete floor of his cell and climbed down into the tunnel, where a henchman on a motorcycle was waiting for him to zoom through the tunnel to the property purchased by his sons, where Coronel’s brother was waiting to drive Guzmán away in an ATV to a nearby warehouse, López said. Next, he was smuggled to an airstrip, where a plane was waiting to fly spirit him away to Sinaloa.
Despite the escape being a feat of engineering, bribery and planning — and immediately magnifying the myth of El Chapo — Guzmán did not stay free for long. After spending about six months hiding out in the mountains of Sinaloa, during which time he had his infamous rendezvous with actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo, a task force of Mexican marines and U.S. federal agents tracked el Chapo down in the city of Los Mochis.
Vowing to take every measure to prevent a third escape, Mexican authorities sent him to the most secure facility they had: Federal Readaption Center #1, or, as it’s more commonly known, Altiplano.
Almost immediately, López told jurors, El Chapo was plotting a new escape, passing messages along to him and Guzmán’s sons via Coronel, telling them that El Chapo would “make a huge effort to escape again.” To do that, Coronel told López that her husband wanted them to find another plot of land near the prison, and Guzmán sent along $100,000 to buy the property.
But before the next escape could take place, Guzmán was moved to a prison in Ciudad Juárez, near the border with Texas. In a note sent through Coronel, El Chapo told López that he was trying to get sent back to Altiplano, beginning with a $2 million bribe paid to a high-ranking — but unnamed — official in charge of the Mexican prison system. But this time, things did not go his way. In January 2017, El Chapo was extradited to the United States, where he is currently being held in solitary confinement at the hyper-secure Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, while his blockbuster trial inches toward the finish line.
The testimony by López, which began Tuesday morning and concluded Thursday morning, included details on some of Guzmán’s most violent acts as an alleged leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Under direct questioning from prosecutors, López, also known as Licenciado, or “Lic,” described his former boss as a bloodthirsty man willing to mete out death for the smallest infraction, as jurors were treated to a chilling video of an interrogation in which a doomed man, covered in bruises and black eyes, answers questions from one of El Chapo’s men.
Guzmán stands accused of a slew of drug-smuggling conspiracy charges, and while he is not charged directly with murder; the government has always insisted that it would tie him to numerous acts of sordid violence. Until Tuesday, much of that violence lay at the periphery of the testimony against him, as witness after witness testified about Guzmán’s drug smuggling operations, his sophisticated communication networks, and his relentless philandering.
But with López, jurors were treated to a barrage of murder and mayhem ordered or orchestrated by Guzmán, including kidnappings, executions, the use of corrupt police to take out enemies, and even the killing of relatives for perceived disloyalty.
López first met Guzmán when the accused drug baron was locked up at Puente Grande, a Mexican maximum security prison in Almoloya, Jalisco, where El Chapo spent time following his 1993 conviction for drug trafficking and bribery. According to the book Narcoland, by Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez, López was already in the pocket of the Sinaloa Cartel when he arrived at Puente Grande in 1999 as a deputy warden, and brought with him a crew of corrupt prison guards who helped Guzmán have the run of the facility. Guzmán escaped from Puente Grande in 2001, but López had stopped working there months prior, and insisted on the stand that he had nothing to do with that escape.
Referring to Guzmán almost exclusively as “my compadre,” López said he initially began working for the Sinaloa Cartel to secure ranches and other properties for Guzmán and his henchmen to use. But as time went on, his role grew, and he took part in the wholesale bribery of Mexican officials, testifying that one man who reported to him, named Javi, was doling out as much as $1 million per month to government officials.
“Javi had contacts with people in the army, federal police, marines, PGR [Attorney General of Mexico],” López said. “We required that to know their movements, and of course we paid them.”
López also directed forces on the ground, taking orders from Guzmán and making sure they were carried out, he said. In one series of text messages in 2013, intercepted by U.S. Homeland Security, he and López discussed an up-and-coming politician in the state of Baja California Sur, who wanted the cartel’s help ridding the politician of a pesky cop who she said had been bothering her. Seeing an opportunity to have a rising star of state politics in their pocket, Guzmán ordered López to make sure the officer was murdered in a way that couldn’t be traced back to the cartel.
“Maybe like when the cop is leaving his house as revenge from some gangbanger,” Guzmán texted. “Don’t be seen. Not with a rifle, but with a pistol so it doesn’t look violent.”
Jurors did not hear if the murder ever took place.
Much of the violence discussed on Tuesday stemmed from the conflict between Guzmán and his former allies in the Beltrán-Leyva family, a clan of drug traffickers also from Sinaloa that had worked closely with El Chapo for decades. In 2008, a schism erupted between the two organizations, plunging Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, into violence.
The trouble began in January of 2008, when federal police arrested Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, AKA “Mochomo,” or Desert Ant, and his security detail in Culiacán, an arrest for which his brother Arturo blamed El Chapo, López said.
“No one could make him come to reason, and he decided to fight my compadre, to make war,” López told jurors.
López and other witnesses have testified that Guzmán did not, in fact, sic the cops on Alfredo, who was later extradited to the United States and sentenced in 2017 to life in prison. But such trickery was not beneath Guzmán — on several occasions, he’d hand information on his enemies whereabouts to the police, letting them do the dirty work, López said.
“My compadre was trying to avoid violence,” López told jurors. “He preferred for the government to be the one to do the work.”
As the war against the Beltrán Leyvas heated up, however, Guzmán did not wait for federales on his payroll to attack the enemy — especially as former employees began to defect. One such turncoat was a man named Israel Rincón Martinez, nicknamed Guacho, a former Sinaloa lieutenant who had become one of the top sicarios for the Beltrán Leyvas, responsible for hiring gunmen in Culiacán.
Guzmán was stung by the betrayal, according to López, and ordered that Guacho be “lifted” away to a ranch belonging to López. There, Guzmán and others questioned the man about his activities. In a haunting video, a bruised and battered Guacho can be seen answering questions asked of him by an unseen interrogator, identified by López as Javi, his master of bribes.
López told jurors he later heard that Guacho had been killed on El Chapo’s orders.
Another perceived betrayal hit even closer to home. According to López, Guzmán ordered the December 2011 killing of his cousin Juan “Juancho” Guzmán after Juancho, also known as Virgo, made the mistake of telling El Chapo that he was out of town, only to be seen later hanging out in a park in Culiacán by one of Guzmán’s men.
“My compadre became angry, because he had lied to him,” said Lopez.
Guzmán then ordered the kidnapping of Juancho and his secretary, who were gunned down and dumped on a road outside of Culiacán, López said.
Between 2007 and 2016, the Mexican drug war claimed the lives of around 80,000 civilians, according to the group Justice In Mexico, a non-profit affiliated with the University of San Diego. But for the most part, the trial of El Chapo has largely ignored the non-cartel victims of violence, due in part to the fact that prosecutors must focus not on the wider effect of drug trafficking but on the crimes that can be tied directly to Guzmán. On Wednesday, however, testimony concentrated briefly on one notable victim of the Sinaloa Cartel’s gunmen: Javier Valdez, a widely respected journalist in Culiacán and the editor of the newspaper Riodoce, who was gunned down on May 15, 2017.
Rumors have long swirled that the murder was the work of López’s son, Dámaso López Serrano, AKA “Mini Lic,” who followed his father into the drug business and was present, López said, at many of the moments he described in this week’s testimony. (Mini Lic turned himself in to U.S. authorities in 2017, and pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges last year.)
A prevailing theory was that sicarios in the employ of Mini Lic had murdered Valdez after Valdez had profiled the father/son narco duo and referred disparagingly to the younger López as a “weekend gunman,” according to Vice News. Even the men arrested for the crime, who are said to work for the cartel faction controlled by López, point to Lic or Mini Lic as being behind the killing, Vice News reported.
But on the stand Thursday, López laid the blame at the feet of los Chapitos, the sons of el Chapo with whom López began to feud after Guzmán’s extradition to the United States left a power vacuum in Sinaloa.