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Wife Of Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán Arrested On Drug Trafficking Charges

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mexico's most famous drug trafficker, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is serving a life sentence in a U.S. maximum security prison. Now it appears that the investigation that put him in jail has also snagged his wife, Emma Coronel. She was arrested on Monday at Dulles Airport in Virginia and made her first virtual appearance at a D.C. court today. We're joined by James Fredrick, a reporter in Mexico City, to talk about her.

Welcome.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Start by just telling us a bit more about who Emma Coronel is and how she came to be married to El Chapo.

FREDRICK: So the first thing to know about Emma Coronel is that she's a dual citizen. She was actually born in California, but she was mostly raised in Mexico's Sinaloa state. Both her uncle and father are pretty well-known drug traffickers. They worked with El Chapo. But early in life, Coronel was mostly known as a beauty queen in the state of Sinaloa, and that's allegedly where El Chapo first saw her winning a beauty competition. And then they were married soon after. He was double her age at the time.

Later, after marrying El Chapo, she kind of became a fashion icon. Some called her a Kardashian of Sinaloa. And despite being married to one of the world's most famous drug traffickers, she lived quite freely. The paparazzi would follow her around. She was seen a lot in 2018 and '19 when El Chapo was in trial in the U.S., always dressed to the nines. So mostly, she just appeared to be a former beauty queen enjoying the profits of her husband's drug trafficking.

SHAPIRO: And so what are the charges against her? I mean, is she accused of helping him with his crimes?

FREDRICK: So officially, what she's accused of is conspiracy to traffic drugs, which is the main charge that is leveled against drug traffickers. But really, there's two main things that U.S. officials accuse her of. The first is that she was kind of a communication intermediary for her husband, El Chapo. So regarding drug shipments and other things, she would kind of relay messages to him.

And then the second thing that she's accused of - and this is the really juicy one - is you might remember a few years ago when El Chapo escaped from a Mexican prison, there was this motorcycle through a tunnel. It was crazy. Well, these investigators say that she was a key figure in planning that escape. And when he was arrested again in 2017, there was allegedly a plan that she had hatched to bribe a prison official to get him out again. But he was extradited to the U.S. before that happened. If guilty, she faces a minimum 10-year sentence and a minimum $10 million fine.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Well, given what a celebrity she is in Mexico, with paparazzi following her and all of that, how are people in Mexico reacting to this?

FREDRICK: I'd say it's mostly been a reaction of curiosity and surprise. It's actually not very common for narco wives to be involved in the business, or at least that's the perception. So I think people were surprised. Investigations show us that women are involved in drug trafficking at really high levels, but historically, women are not investigated or charged for these high-level crimes. So I'm curious to see if this changes the narrative a bit and there is more of an acceptance that women are high-level, powerful people in drug trafficking.

SHAPIRO: The U.S.-Mexico relationship on the drug war is tense right now. Did they work together on this investigation? Is it possible that this arrest will cause more tension between the two countries?

FREDRICK: You are right that there's a lot of tension right now. But this morning, Mexico's president, Lopez Obrador - he said she's a U.S. citizen. This was a U.S. investigation. So Mexico's really hands-off. I think going forward, what will be interesting to see is whether Coronel makes a deal with U.S. officials and says, I have information, and I'll give it to you for a lesser sentence. And so we may learn just how involved she was in the business if she is able to tip U.S. investigators off to more people involved in drug trafficking in Mexico.

SHAPIRO: That's James Fredrick reporting from Mexico City.

Thanks a lot.

FREDRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.