A government informant implicated Joaquín "El Chapo” Guzmán Loera’s wife Emma in his notorious escape from a Mexican prison through a tunnel as she watched Sphinx-like from a second row seat at his drug trafficking trial in Brooklyn federal court on Wednesday.
The witness, former Guzmán lieutenant Dámaso López Nuñnez, testified that in a series of meetings over the course of a year Emma Coronel Aispuro passed orders to buy land and a warehouse to stage the dig and vehicles for the getaway from Mexico’s Altiplano prison, where Guzmán was held.
He said that Coronel also passed along directions on how to solve a key question in the tunnel plot — making sure the excavation would come up at the right spot, under Guzmán’s cell in a high-security wing of the prison.
“We were looking to obtain a watch with GPS,” he testified. “We had to bring it and get it to him inside the prison to get the coordinates of the cell where my compadre was.”
After the dramatic 2015 escape, López said, he met with Guzmán, and the accused drug lord told him that the excavation had been audible long before his escape as workers struggled to break through the concrete floor of his cell.
“That caused a lot of noise with the other inmates, who were in fact complaining,” Lopez said he was told by Guzmán.
Guzmán, who was eventually recaptured and extradited to the United States in 2017, is charged with using violence and corruption to control Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel, smuggling an estimated $14 billion in cocaine across the border.
Coronel, 29, a former local beauty queen who has twin daughters with Guzmán and has attended the trial almost daily since it began in November, did not react when reporters glanced back at her during the testimony about her role as a courier. She later declined in Spanish to comment to reporters.
López, a lawyer in Mexico, played a key role in Guzmán’s organization for over a decade. Arrested in 2017, he agreed to cooperate with the United States — he says Guzmán’s sons were plotting attacks on him and his family — but when he took the stand on Tuesday and faced Guzmán he put his hand over his heart.
Despite connecting his ex-boss to murders, payoffs and drug deals, Lopez explained on Wednesday, “I love him. He’s a person with whom I have actually spent many years together and I have a special affection for him.”
He said the planning for the prison escape began in 2014, shortly after Guzmán’s arrest in Mazatlan, when the alleged kingpin sent letters describing cordial relationships with administrators at Altiplano prison and telling Lopez to expect an important message from Coronel.
At a series of meetings with her and Guzmán’s four sons in Sinaloa, López testified, she passed messages calling for money to bribe guards, staging areas for the dig, the GPS watch, weapons and other items. He was not involved in the excavation, he said, but was busy on other parts of the project.
“It wasn’t something that you could do overnight, but I was working on things,” he said.
Guzmán, he said, also passed word that the escape should occur on a weekend when the prison would be short-staffed, and he disappeared on July 11, 2015 — a Sunday — into a hole in the shower area of his cell that led to a mile-long ventilated tunnel 30 feet under the fields surrounding the prison.
Lopez said Guzmán told him he traveled on a motorcycle-type device on a pulley system through the tunnel — officials later found the cart — and he was met by an ATV that took him to a nearby warehouse and then an airstrip, where he was flown back to Sinaloa, and hid out at a ranch he called “El Cielo,” Spanish for the sky.
He had been imprisoned for 16 months and was recaptured after six months. But López testified that Coronel again served as her husband’s emissary, recruiting him to help in yet another escape attempt and providing $100,000 to buy a new plot of land near the prison for the attempt.
López said that plan was put on hold when Guzmán was transferred from Altiplano to a more secure facility. He said a $2 million bribe was paid to a Mexican prison director to arrange for his return to the prison he had broken out of, but the transfer never happened.
Coronel has come up before in testimony. In one set of exchanges intercepted by the government that were displayed in court, Guzmán and her father communicated over her phone about security measures for a planned drug flight.
One of the witnesses at trial was a former mistress of Guzmán, who was arrested visiting the United States and agreed to cooperate under the shadow of a drug indictment carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.
But a spokesman for Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue declined to comment on why no charges have been lodged against Coronel, based on her role in the escapes, or whether she is under investigation.