TIERRA CALIENTE, Mexico — She sits straight-backed and with her shoulders squared, as if braced for an interrogation instead of an interview. Dark hair falling past her elbows, clothes tasteful but not extravagant: black slacks, a rose-colored shirt, and a white silk scarf knotted at her throat.
But there’s a sadness to her eyes. The smile that made her a coffee pageant beauty queen at 17—and helped win her the heart of the world’s most wanted man, the king of the Mexican cartels—is almost never seen on camera. From time to time, as she speaks, her chin tilts upright as if in defiance or perhaps subtle scorn.
“Anything evil that happens in whatever part of the world [goes against] El Chapo,” says Emma Coronel Aispuro, the crime lord’s third and current and very loyal wife, in an interview broadcast by the NBC-owned Telemundo channel on Sunday night.
“The [Mexican] government made him the most wanted capo in the world—perhaps to hide more important things,” the 26-year-old Coronel told Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández, who’s covered Chapo’s exploits for more than a decade.
Hernández scored this exclusive scoop after Coronel sent her a handwritten note alleging that her incarcerated spouse is suffering from high blood pressure and malnutrition while languishing in solitary confinement at the same Mexican super-max Altiplano prison from which he escaped last year.
“He never suffered from high blood pressure before,” the note says, in part. Coronel’s plea to journalist Hernández came on the heels of Chapo’s own declaration that the conditions of his imprisonment were “turning him into a zombie.”
“They want to make him pay for his escape,” Coronel says. “They say that they are not punishing him, [but] of course they are. They’re right there, all day long. They don’t let him sleep. He has no privacy, not even to go to the restroom,” she says, then adds:
“I fear for his life.”
During Sunday’s much-publicized interview, Coronel—who met Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán at a dance in 2007, and is the mother of their twin 4-year-old girls—claimed not to know about her husband’s position as the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, the largest drug trafficking network on earth.
“He’s like any other man,” she says, blank-faced and without inflection. “Not violent. Not rude… I have never seen him get excited or be upset at anyone.”
Not everyone who studied Coronel’s broadcast was convinced by her claims.
“She’d have to live in a cave not to know who [Chapo] really is,” Laura Carlsen, director of The Americas Program of the Center for International Policy, tells The Daily Beast.
Carlsen believes Coronel is playing “the traditional role of the good Mexican wife,” adding, with marked understatement, “She’s had to put up with a lot,” including “all the stories of his relationships with other women.”
At 61 years old, Chapo is more than 30 years older than his latest bride, and is said to have fathered as many as 19 children, including the twins with Coronel.
Carlsen believes Chapo’s power and influence, not to mention his womanizing, would have made it hard for Coronel to maintain her innocence—or naiveté—for long after they’d met.
“The truth is that [Coronel] is well aware of the role Chapo plays in the drug trade,” says Carlsen, and of the “nasty business” that goes along with it.
“But he’s been careful to protect her,” Carlsen explains, when asked why Coronel, an American citizen, would go to bat for her drug-lord spouse.
“She knows he’s the person who butters her bread,” says Carlsen, who also accuses of Coronel of a “psychological disconnect” when it comes to ignoring the hundreds of killings, abductions, and acts of torture attributed to Guzmán by U.S. authorities and their Mexican counterparts.
But Carlsen also feels Coronel’s interview with Hernández was motivated by “self-interest”—in order to deflect any criticism of her own complicity in her husband’s underworld empire.
“Emma herself should be investigated” for criminal activity, says human-rights expert Carlsen, who heads the Americas Project’s Mexico office. She points out that while giving birth to Guzmán’s daughters in Los Angeles, in 2011, Coronel was carefully shielded from investigation, even though her husband was considered a public enemy at the time.
“Her status as wife and mother should not make her exempt from prosecution,” Carlsen says.
While speaking with Telemundo’s Hernández, Emma Coronel also made it clear to hundreds of thousands of viewers across the U.S. and Mexico that her fealty to Chapo remains as strong as ever:
“I’ll follow him anywhere,” she says. “I’m in love with him—he’s the father of my children.”
As touching as Coronel’s loyalty might sound on the surface, many observers believe the child-bearing union between Chapo and Coronel was no accidental courtship—but rather an attempt to bond divergent and at-times competing crime families together, in the manner of the Sicilian mafia clans intermarrying for “the business.”
Coronel’s uncle is allegedly Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel—a Sinaloa mob boss who was gunned down by Mexican police in 2010. Coronel’s father was also arrested on drug trafficking charges in 2013—and her brother was the man who met Chapo when he emerged from his famous under-the-prison-walls tunnel in July of 2015, eventually flying with him to safety in a small plane.
For her part, Coronel proclaimed her family’s innocence publicly on Sunday night, chalking all such accusations up to conspiracy theories and the Mexican government’s intention to “seize family assets.”
Emmanuel Gallardo, a Mexico City-based journalist who specializes in cartel conflict coverage, strongly disagrees with Coronel’s claims to her family’s innocence:
“She’s lying,” says Gallardo. “Everyone in Mexico knows the Coronels are connected to the Sinaloan cartel—and they have been for years.”
However, Gallardo also sees how Emma Coronel might have come to harbor such cognitive dissonance about her family’s dark side.
“In the imagination, cartel bosses are these bad guys with guns who go around killing people,” Gallardo says. “But the reality is quite different, [because] the big-time leaders always have other people who do that kind of work for them.”
According to Gallardo, a top capo like Chapo could easily have led a “double life”—a dichotomy made easier with tricks like laundering dirty money through banks and other shadow companies.
“Look at Pablo Escobar,” Gallardo says, referring to the infamous Colombian mobster. “People around him thought he was this great family man, too, and maybe he was. Chapo might be wonderful to his kids, too—but that doesn’t mean he’s not a killer.”
At the same time, Gallardo shares Coronel’s concerns about the 5-foot-6 kingpin’s living conditions in his cell in Altiplano.
“I think maybe she’s right about him suffering human-rights violations. The Mexican prison system is rotten to the core,” says Gallardo, who cites the recent death of 49 inmates during a riot at the Topo Chico penitentiary as indicative of what he calls a climate of systemic abuse.
“Narcos are still human beings,” he says, “and their rights can’t be ignored.”
The Telemundo exclusive with Coronel isn’t the first Chapo-related interview to invite controversy and spark a backlash. Last month, just after Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced Guzmán’s capture, a piece of purple-prosed, pseudo-Gonzo journalism by actor Sean Penn captured headlines around the world.
Trailing along with a popular Mexican TV actress, Penn had traveled deep into the Mexican jungle for an undocumented interview with the fugitive Chapo. Journalistic purists bemoaned Guzmán using Penn as his unwitting spokesman, while authorities claimed the rendezvous helped lead to the crime boss’s capture several weeks later.
Coronel herself took aim at what she called her husband’s “betrayal” by Penn and company in her tête-à-tête with Hernández on Sunday evening. However, some experts, like America’s Program director Carlsen, believe Coronel herself is also being duped:
“This whole thing is a script being played out,” Carlsen says of the Telemundo special starring Chapo’s better half. “It’s damage control by the Sinaloan cartel—and Coronel herself is just a pawn.”
Carlsen argues that, like Sean Penn—who also depicted Chapo as a more-or-less innocent businessman—Coronel is being used to “create this white-washed version of one of the world’s most dangerous drug lords.”
Meanwhile, says Carlsen, justice for the victims of Chapo and the other Mexican cartels “is reduced to a second plane, and the larger issues are swept from the headlines. The cycle of violence goes on and on.”
Mexican journalist Gallardo sides with Carlsen on this issue, and even goes so far as to call the much-touted Coronel interview, and the breathless build-up to it in the international media, “a soap opera.”
“The telenovela [daytime drama] started with Sean Penn, and it serves nicely to distract people from the reality of human-rights abuse by the government, violence being committed by other cartels, and economic troubles and poverty in Mexico,” says Gallardo.
The cartel conflict-zone specialist is also critical of Coronel’s choice to cast herself as the unwitting victim, specifically citing her leisurely lifestyle and dual citizenship—luxuries that are the envy of many in Mexico.
“Whatever she has, it’s been paid for with blood money,” Gallardo says. “What kind of wife doesn’t know where her husband works?”