In the past month, Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of the drug lord known as El Chapo, has become a controversial central character in her husband’s trial.
A witness named her as a co-conspirator in his infamous maximum-security prison break in 2015. Transcripts of text messages between the husband and wife showed him asking her to stash his weapons ahead of a raid. The morning one of El Chapo’s mistresses took the stand, Ms. Coronel and her husband wore matching maroon velvet suit jackets in what appeared to be a show of solidarity.
Over the course of Joaquín Guzmán Loera’s three-month trial, witnesses for the prosecution have described a grim life for the women in and around the cartel who are often expected to balance a role that walks the line between lover and accomplice. Most fail, usually wanting to be too much of one, and not enough of the other. They often end up behind bars or in hiding.
But Ms. Coronel, the most prominent female presence in a trial of almost exclusively male players, has emerged as the exception.
Over 10 weeks, prosecutors have called 56 witnesses who have portrayed her husband as a vengeful drug trafficker, a bloodthirsty killer and an habitual philanderer. Ms. Coronel has appeared in court almost every day, a stone-faced fixture in her reserved seat in the second row.
As a result of trial testimony, her husband is almost certainly going to prison for the rest of his life. But Ms. Coronel, who has enjoyed the spoils of a drug empire that prosecutors have estimated allowed the kingpin to bank $14 billion over the course of his 30-year reign, dismissed the courtroom characterizations of her husband.
“I don’t know my husband as the person they are trying to show him as,” Ms. Coronel told The New York Times in one of several interviews conducted in Spanish. “But rather I admire him as the human being that I met, and the one that I married.”
Most would balk at Ms. Coronel’s admiration for her husband, one of the most notorious drug lords in Latin American who, according to one witness, was powerful enough to pay off a former Mexican president.
The case has been so strong — in the last week a witness detailed how Mr. Guzmán had a man buried alive — that El Chapo’s own legal team only mustered a 30-minute defense on Tuesday after the prosecution rested its case.
Married couples cannot be compelled to testify against each other, but recent trial developments have left many wondering how Ms. Coronel has managed to avoid criminal charges.
Prosecutors declined to answer questions about why she is not in legal peril, and Ms. Coronel also has refused to comment on the court proceedings. But the testimony, if true, only compounds the good-wife narrative.
Now more than ever, she is linked to her husband.
“If you hear ‘Emma Coronel’ and you know who Emma Coronel is, then you’re going to think: El Chapo,” said Miguel Ángel Vega, a reporter for the news site RioDoce, based in Culiacán.
Ms. Coronel, 29, became El Chapo’s wife as a teenager in 2007 and a mother while in her early 20s. Her husband — more than twice her age and married multiple times — has been either incarcerated or on the run for their entire married life.
The trial has led Ms. Coronel to split her time between two countries; the couple’s 7-year-old twin daughters are in school in Mexico. She said she stays in touch with them through group messaging.
“I have had to be separated from my daughters to accompany him now that I am the only person in his family that can be here in New York with him,” Ms. Coronel said.
Since Mr. Guzmán’s extradition in January 2017, their twins, Emali and Maria Joaquina, have been able to see their father during court appearances and through closely supervised visits to jail.
“He always was a father very present to the attention of our daughters,” she said of her husband. She described the girls as “the adoration of their father and he is the adoration of them.”
The twins are the only approved visitors who can currently see him at the undisclosed location where he is being held. (Ms. Coronel has not once been allowed to visit or speak with him, even by phone.)
“I don’t consider myself a single mother,” Ms. Coronel said. “More so, a mother who in this moment doesn’t have the support of her husband, but trusts that the family will be well.”
Still, she acknowledged, “Obviously, our life changed.”
Ms. Coronel met Mr. Guzmán at a ranch in Durango, Mexico, when she was 17. Mr. Guzmán, then in his late 40s and well-established at the top of the Sinaloa cartel, had been on the run some six years after making a daring escape from prison in a laundry cart in 2001.
Although 32 years separate them in age, from that first day “a lovely friendship” started between the couple, Ms. Coronel told The Times. “With the passing of months we became girlfriend and boyfriend,” she recalled. “And when I turned 18 years old, we married in a very simple ceremony with family and only close friends.”
Ms. Coronel, who rarely gives interviews, insisted she leads a normal life. Born in California, she grew up in the northwestern Mexican state of Durango, neighboring Mr. Guzmán’s own Sinaloa. Both states make up part of the Golden Triangle of marijuana production. Still, the version of her life story she shared excluded any mention of drugs — even though court testimony has suggested that her father worked for the Sinaloa cartel.
Instead, she briefly mentioned a “very tranquil, simple childhood, within a loving, unified family,” adding that she grew up with two brothers and a sister “whom I love.” Stories about her in Mexico have said that she won a beauty pageant as a teenager, but most details about her personal life remain a mystery.
Mr. Vega, who also co-hosts a Vice podcast about El Chapo, said he believes the couple’s love story is genuine.
“Can you imagine a 17-year-old who just happens to win a beauty pageant contest and then this powerful man tries to conquer her heart?” he said. “I believe that she was seduced by that power, by that name. Just the name.”
That romance has now brought her to New York City, where during the time of her husband’s imprisonment she has attended a Yankees game, walked through Central Park and often dines at a favorite sky-view sushi spot in Brooklyn.
On a recent day, Ms. Coronel walked out of a hotel lobby in Brooklyn, bundled against 40-degree weather in a black, fur-trimmed puff jacket, alongside two female friends — an attorney and her real estate agent. She looked around for a black Camry that would take her into Manhattan for a photo shoot.
The city is not new to her, she said. She has seen tourist attractions, like the Empire State Building, on other visits.
When asked about her night life in the city, Ms. Coronel replied, “I prefer to sleep.” The trial, she said, has been exhausting.
Once inside the car, there was a general rejoicing that it was finally Friday — a day off from the trial to sleep in.
Ms. Coronel had been central to the drama that unfolded in court before the defense rested its case.
Prosecutors shared the couple’s text messages from 2012, which showed her preparing for a potential raid at the home where she was staying that February.
“Any weapons there, love? Do you have a gun?” Mr. Guzmán asked in one exchange.
“I have one of yours. That you gave me,” she responded.
He instructed her to hide it in a clavo, or hidden compartment, in the home.
Last week, Dámaso López Núñez, 52, a former prison director turned high-ranking cartel member, testified that Ms. Coronel helped orchestrate her husband’s 2015 prison escape.
Over the course of four months in early 2015, Mr. López said Ms. Coronel met with him and Mr. Guzmán’s sons to carry out Mr. Guzmán’s jailhouse directives: purchase a plot of land and bodega close to the prison; secure weapons, an armored pickup truck and a GPS wristwatch to pinpoint his exact cell coordinates; and dig a tunnel stretching from the prison to the bodega.
In July 2015, Mr. Guzmán shimmied down a hole dug under his shower, mounted a pulley-run cycle and rode it the length of the nearly mile-long tunnel. One of Ms. Coronel’s brothers was waiting for him at the bodega with an A.T.V., which they rode to an airstrip in San Juan, according to testimony. From there, Mr. Guzmán flew home to the mountains of Sinaloa.
Ms. Coronel declined to comment when asked about Mr. López’s allegations that she had helped her husband escape.
Throughout the trial, Ms. Coronel has betrayed little emotion — even on the day when one of Mr. Guzmán’s mistresses sobbed on the stand.
Ms. Coronel’s outward composure has faltered only once, the lone day she brought her daughters to court in December. On that day, the prosecution rolled in a cart filled with AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. When she saw the weapons, Ms. Coronel flew out of the courtroom, escorting her daughters into a hallway filled with United States marshals.
Without singling out any incident, Ms. Coronel has noted her dislike for what has happened in court. It has been “demasiado,” too much, she said. “I hate drama.”
One day after court, Mr. Guzmán scanned the gallery. His wife smiled, leaning across the bench. They did not, could not, speak to one another. A flank of marshals escorted him out of the room, and she turned solemn.
“This situation that we are forging through right now is difficult and heavy,” she said. “However, I have faith and I am convinced that God puts us only through obstacles that we can overcome, and I trust that it will be how it is.”