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The World's Most Famous Narco Wife Walks
Emma Coronel continues to spark public fascination as she's freed from jail; she seems to play her difficult game well
During the New York show trial of El Chapo from 2018 to 2019, his beauty queen wife Emma Coronel was one of the main attractions for the TV cameras, writers and even psycho fans who just came for the ride. With no photos inside the courtroom, pictures of her walking to the federal building in her designer garms decorated many of the stories on the ultimate drug war case.
She would dutifully greet El Chapo, or Joaquín Guzmán, across the courtroom as he walked in each morning to face charges of bringing $14 billion worth of drugs to America. One time she was joking with journalist Jesús García and not paying attention as El Chapo entered. “El Señor!” she exclaimed, realizing the kingpin had come in. El Chapo stared down Jesús from across the room.
I talked to her at one hearing and she was open and friendly but adept at not giving any real information away. The same is true in interviews where she manages to charm while saying nothing of value. A New York Times profile got little except a quote of her saying of El Chapo, “I admire him as the human being that I met, and the one that I married.”
While she spilled no intel, the press helped elevate her to fame as a glamorous narco wife and she used this to her advantage. Shortly after El Chapo was found guilty, she announced she was launching her own clothing brand. She appeared on VH1’s show Cartel Crew sipping cocktails on a yacht with the relatives of other infamous gangsters.
The fact that American TV glamorizes a drug lord’s wife can seem bad taste when you consider the hundreds of thousands of murders in Mexico. Yet her high profile did encourage the feds to take her down. In February 2021, she was arrested and charged with being part of the Sinaloa Cartel’s cocaine conspiracy, helping El Chapo escape, and laundering money. Reuters reported she could get up to life in prison before she plead guilty.
Yet two and a half years later, Coronel embraces freedom. Under her plea agreement, she admitted responsibility for her crimes, was ordered to forfeit $1.5 million and got a 36-month sentence. (There could be further details in the negotiation we are unaware of). In June, she was moved from prison to a halfway house, or “residential reentry management” program in Long Beach. She left there today, although she will still have to check in with authorities, Bureau of Prisons officials said.
As she walks into her next episode, Coronel continues to make a media splash with thousands of stories on her release. And still just 34, her prospects don’t look bad. A joint U.S.-Mexican citizen, she can’t be deported to Mexico where she could be in danger - the rumor is that she is not popular with El Chapo’s former wives, and their sons, the “Chapitos,” are a major faction in the cartel. But in the United States, her clothing company or other ventures look promising. She is in a difficult game, but she seems to play it well.
The Role of Narco Wife
There’s been a longtime fascination with women in the narco world and a splattering of non-fiction and fictional portrayals, most famously the telenovela, “The Queen of the South.” Journalist Deborah Bonello, author of the new book Narcas, points out that we often focus on these women as wives or victims when there are powerful female traffickers in their own right. “The patriarchy of the cartels seems very real, but to assume women don’t have a capacity for violence or a thirst for power is another narrow gender stereotype,” she writes.
Women have moved serious loads of dope from heroin queen La Nacha in Ciudad Juárez in the 1920s to the Colombian Griselda Blanco pioneering cocaine smuggling into Miami (and murdering at least two of her husbands). Still, Coronel is famous precisely because she is the wife of El Chapo rather than for being a trafficker, and as a former beauty queen, her glamor has been key in the interest. In fact, she has probably become the most famous gangster wife ever, with neither Mae Capone (wife of Al Capone) or Maria Victoria Henao (wife of Pablo Escobar) scoring so many headlines.
The spice of intimacy with an arch gangster provides fodder for cable news. In this clip, CBS hosts who are reporting on the Chapo trial laughed at the capo’s former mistress taking the stand as Emma looked on. “His wife, while she [the mistress] was crying and sobbing, was cackling away,” says the reporter. “No!” replies the host.
Born in California, Coronel grew up in Durango, which borders Sinaloa and is part of Mexico’s Golden Triangle of drug production. Her father Inés Coronel was “a member of the Sinaloa Cartel,” and her “family had a historical friendship with Guzmán,” according to the affidavit of FBI special agent Eric McGuire. (Inés was arrested in 2013 in Sonora.)
At 17, Coronel won the beauty contest at Durango’s “festival of coffee and guayabas,” which according to some reports El Chapo attended while he was on the run after escaping prison in 2001. They married the following year in 2007, managing to host an ostentatious wedding in the mountains. In 2011, Coronel crossed over to Lancaster, California to give birth to their twin daughters. In this period, the Sinaloa Cartel was fighting a brutal war in Ciudad Juárez, making it the most murderous city on the planet.
The FBI affidavit states that Coronel was always aware of El Chapo’s business (and it’s hard to believe otherwise) and she was with him when Mexican marines stormed into an apartment in Mazatlán in 2014 and re-arrested him. Following his second stint in prison, Coronel got more involved in the cartel, the affidavit says. The FBI got hold of a hand-written letter from El Chapo in which he tells her how to instruct a drug producer. “Increase the production so that it yields,” it says. She then helped coordinate El Chapo’s second escape, passing on instructions to the Chapitos and moving money to buy land near the prison they would build a tunnel from.
That second escape in 2015, really catapulted El Chapo to his global infamy. And he kept getting bigger in the public imagination when he was re-arrested yet again in 2016, when it turned out he had met Sean Penn, and when he went on trial in New York to rolling coverage.
The prosecutors did not argue Coronel was a crime boss, which could account for her short time in jail. Still, it is a remarkably short sentence considering the scope and violence of the Sinaloa Cartel. She hasn’t witnessed against other traffickers, but she may have given information, although that is not confirmed. It would seem a long shot that she would go back into the drug business - especially as she has other options.
In Sinaloa, the wives and girl friends of narco bosses are known as buchonas and there is an industry of plastic surgery, diamond-encrusted nails and Instagram accounts around them. Tragically, for many young women in northern Mexico, becoming a buchona is an attractive career path. Emma Coronel’s trajectory likely only enforces that allure.
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UPDATE - The story was updated at 11-42 am Mexico City time with news of her release.
Photos, top from Emma Coronel’s Instagram, middle mugshot from her arrest, third from federal evidence.
Copyright Ioan Grillo and CrashOutMedia 2023