Former beauty queen Emma Coronel Aispuro was the perfect picture of loyalty as she sat in the gallery of a Brooklyn courtroom watching the trial of her drug-kingpin husband, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The US-born narco queen had been an implacable fixture during 11 weeks of hearings, dutifully coming to court each morning to support her hubby — with the pair even wearing matching velvet crimson blazers one day to demonstrate their unbreakable bond.
Dripping in designer duds and perfectly primped with contoured cheekbones, Coronel hardly flinched even when Guzman’s former mistresses took the stand — except to cackle when one of them broke down in tears.
But Thursday, Coronel’s fealty to the world’s most feared drug kingpin and his Sinaloa cartel, now allegedly operated by her stepsons, appeared to be faltering.
She pleaded guilty to felony drug-trafficking charges against her, signaling a possible deal with prosecutors in exchange for a sentence lighter than the maximum she faces — life in prison.
Prosecutors revealed in the latest court papers that they will seek 108 to 135 months behind bars for her.
Coronel’s Manhattan lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, has scoffed at the notion that his client is cooperating with federal prosecutors — a move that could certainly get her killed by the drug syndicate. Lichtman has said the claim is simply a farce designed to jeopardize her safety and force her into dealing with authorities.
But law-enforcement experts told The Post on Friday that the writing may be on the wall, given that Coronel has pleaded guilty and must explain her role in the illegal enterprise as part of the move.
“When you’re talking about a person who’s part of a criminal enterprise or part of a conspiracy, explaining your part in it by definition includes cooperating and informing against other people,” said Olivier Farache, a former FBI agent who spent 11 years with the bureau.
“You can’t just say, ‘I delivered drugs for this enterprise, and that’s all I’m going to say.’ You have to say where you got the drugs from, who you took them to — that’s how it works.”
Coronel has been locked up since February, after she was arrested at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, and is awaiting sentencing in September. Her husband was sentenced to life — plus 30 years — in 2019.
Lou Savera, a former NYPD sergeant who created the department’s gang unit, said Coronel was between a rock and a hard place over whether to cop to a deal — and really would be safer under the protection of US authorities as part of one.
“She’s in danger,” he said, noting all the secrets she knows. “She’d be crazy not to cooperate. … Either that, or get killed.”
Where is Emma Coronel Aispuro from, and how did she meet ‘El Chapo?’
Coronel, known to fellow narcos as “La Reinita,” or “Little Queen,” has known Guzman since childhood.
Born in California, Coronel grew up in the remote Durango village of Canelas on the western edges of Mexico’s rugged interior, and her father, Ines Coronel Barrera, was a feared drug lord working for Guzman, and her brother was reportedly one of his pilots.
It’s said that Guzman first laid eyes on his future wife at a dance Coronel’s father hosted when she was just 17.
Guzman secured the gorgeous teen’s win in a beauty-pageant contest during the Coffee and Guava Festival in Canelas soon after, in 2007 — a claim Coronel has denied — and a few months later, the pair wed on the teen’s 18th birthday.
Not much is known about their wedding ceremony, and it’s hard to say how much of a choice Coronel even had in the nuptials, which were widely seen as a way to solidify her father’s position within the Sinaloa cartel.
“These mythical figures are admired for their power and their money, but they’re also incredibly feared, you can’t go against them, you can’t cross them,” Farache said of Mexico’s ruthless drug lords.
“Saying no to someone like ‘El Chapo’ is not really an option,” he said.
“I imagine that her father both loved and hated it,” the former federal agent said of the pair’s union.
“He knows how violent El Chapo was, or is, and how dangerous he is. At the same time, it solidifies like Old World alliances, his position in the organization, knowing that there’s a wedding, there’s marriage ties,” Farache said.
After several years of marriage, the couple had two children, twin girls Emali Guadalupe and Maria Joaquina, who are about 9 years old and always pictured dressed in matching outfits.
Farache pointed to the girls as one of the reasons Coronel may have been inclined to plead guilty over risking a life sentence that could have come with a jury trial.
“When I’ve seen people plead when they have young children like that, that’s one of the biggest motivating factors,” he said. “When you have children in the mix, I think people will do anything to protect them and get back to them.”
How involved was Emma Coronel Aispuro in ‘El Chapo’s’ drug cartel?
Coronel has previously claimed that she had no idea the man she married on her 18th birthday was the globe’s largest and most lethal trafficker of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana — but the feds say it took no time at all for her to get her hands dirty after the wedding.
Prosecutors allege that her work with Guzman started as soon as they were married and that she has played a role in everything from orchestrating her hubby’s elaborate July 11, 2015, escape from Altiplano prison in Mexico to serving as his go-between during difficult times to help his drug-trafficking operation.
Between 2012 and 2014, while Guzman was hiding out from Mexican authorities, his wife “relayed messages” on his behalf “in furtherance of drug-trafficking activities,” prosecutors said.
When the drug lord was arrested in Mexico in February 2014, she continued to deliver missives she got from him during their many prison visits and is also accused of bribing guards to make sure her hubby was well-fed and had access to specialty foods while behind bars.
She also assisted in two plots to help Guzman escape from Mexican lockups — including his infamous 2015 jailbreak through an underground tunnel, the feds have alleged.
They say Coronel played a key role in the audacious escape — an elaborate, months-long plan to dig into Guzman’s cell and whisk him away through a tunnel on a motorbike — and worked with Guzman’s sons to organize construction of the milelong, lighted passage.
The calculated plot involved buying a piece of land near the prison, purchasing firearms and an armored truck and smuggling in a GPS watch to Guzman so they could pinpoint his location “to construct the tunnel with an entry point accessible to him,” court docs state.
During Guzman’s trial, former Sinaloa cartel captain-turned-rat Damaso Lopez Nuñez told the court that Coronel had personally informed him Guzman wanted to escape from prison and wanted to know if he was willing to help.
“I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Lopez testified at the time.
How was Emma Coronel Aispuro arrested, and how long will she be in prison?
For nearly three months, Coronel has been forced to trade her flashy designer outfits and made-for-Instagram lifestyle for hunter-green prison garb and the banalities of incarceration while locked up at the Alexandria Adult Detention Center in northern Virginia.
Since her arrest in February, where she willingly turned herself in, Coronel has been denied bail and faces a lengthy prison stint come her scheduled sentencing.
While the charges Coronel pleaded guilty to — drug trafficking, money laundering and helping Guzman run his business — could carry the life sentence, prosecutors have agreed to push for the much less nine- to 15-year sentence, records show.
Jeff Higgins, a retired federal Drug Enforcement Agency special agent who helped bring in the first US narco-terrorism case, said it is possible that Coronel is cooperating. But he added that it is equally possible she was just trying to minimize her time in jail by pleading guilty.
“It could be that [the Department of Justice] is looking at her as a bit player. She’s a spouse. She was only involved in this because of who is married to. Yes, she benefited financially from it, but the moral case for trying to go after her and get a life sentence really isn’t there,” Higgins explained.
“But she’s clearly guilty, and they want to be able to send a message, and they want to be able to disrupt the organization.”
Whether testimony from Coronel will lead to the next blockbuster narco trial — this time starring Guzman’s two sons — remains to be seen, Higgins said.
“We’ll know when she’s sentenced in September,” the former agent said.
Additional reporting by Ben Feuerherd