El Chapo's spouse, Emma Coronel, may maintain the keys to dismantling the world's most harmful drug cartel
Two years after the conviction and life imprisonment of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the cartel he once led appears stronger than ever.
A threat analysis published by the US Drug Enforcement Administration in March states that the Sinaloa cartel is still the largest such organization in Mexico and "retains the broadest national influence" in the US. said the DEA.
It seems to be proof that the organization is much bigger than a man. But what about a woman?
After the arrest of Emma Coronel Aispuro, El Chapo's wife and mother of their twin daughters, in February, US authorities hope that their three-decade war with the cartel will be interrupted.
Coronel, 31, is being held without bail on charges of conspiracy to distribute narcotics and helping El Chapo escape a Mexican prison in 2014. Beauty Queen, who married El Chapo when she was 19 goes deeper.
"Coronel grew up with knowledge of the drug trafficking industry," said the lawsuit. "Coronel understood the scope of the Sinaloa cartel drug trafficking."
That scope is enormous, say the US authorities. The cartel controls drug trafficking in the most important areas of Mexico – along the Pacific coast and on the northern and southern borders and is the gatekeeper along the southwestern border of the USA and controls the smuggling routes to California and Arizona. And the organization is as violent as it is ruthless. US prosecutors say the cartel is known to carry out murders, assassinations and torture just to protect its turf. Some believe Coronel could help break the cycle of violence.
Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leaves federal court during his trial in Brooklyn, New York on February 5, 2019.
Jeenah moon | Reuters
"It knows, so to speak, where all bodies are buried, and it can cause great damage to the Sinaloa cartel," said former DEA chief international operations officer Mike Vigil in an interview with CNBC's "American Greed".
Vigil, whose six books on international drug trafficking include "Afghan Warlord" published last fall, believes Coronel will eventually strike a deal with the US authorities in hopes of protecting their daughters. He said it could do real harm to the organization.
"She can provide a lot of information, the drug routes, where to buy cocaine, corrupt officials, members of the Sinaloa cartel and things like that," Vigil said.
Coronel, who is a US citizen and Mexican citizen and has been indicted in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, has not filed a lawsuit. In March, she waived her right to a preliminary hearing.
"We're working on a possible plea deal," said her New York-based attorney Jeffrey Lichtman in an email to American Greed. "Things could be resolved in the next few weeks." He didn't say whether an agreement could include Coronel's collaboration.
Lichtman had previously described rumors about Coronel's potential collaboration as "despicable" and warned that they were putting the lives of his customer and their daughters at risk.
In March, Lichtman told NBCUniversal's Telemundo that his client doesn't have as much information as people think.
"That's a popular opinion, but it's based on speculation," Lichtman said, noting that El Chapo was behind bars most of the time while the couple were married. "It's not like he told her prison secrets over the phone."
Another drug trafficking expert, Mexico City-based journalist Ioan Grillo, told American Greed that the Sinaloa cartel was so extensive and decentralized that even Coronel did not have the secrecy the authorities needed to keep it to bring down.
"I don't think there's a serious case, it would be a major blow," said Grillo, whose latest book, Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels, was published this year.
He said the cartel could easily shift to other routes if its existing utilities were compromised. And even if she could give up on corrupt government officials, there's a lot more where they come from.
"You could reveal information about political protection, but even if you do, there is other political protection that people can get," he said.
Vigil believes the cartel is already making adjustments just in case.
"The Sinaloa cartel is a very resilient cartel," he said.
However, Lichtman has not taken a deal for his customer off the table.
"I think anyone charged with a federal crime who faces a minimum sentence of 10 years is certainly open to what the government has to say about a negotiated solution," he told Telemundo in March.
If Coronel turned around, she wouldn't be the first Sinaloa insider to do so.
No fewer than 14 cooperating witnesses were represented in the criminal case against El Chapo 2019. These included Chicago twins Peter and Jay Flores, senior traffickers for the organization who kept drugs flowing to America's heartland and money flowing to El Chapo.
Today the Flores twins are hiding, but their wives only spoke to "American Greed". Olivia Flores, who is married to Jay, and Mia Flores, who is married to Peter, are also making extensive arrangements. They live under a false name and "American Greed" agreed to keep the location of the interview a secret.
Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera aka "el Chapo Guzman" (C) is accompanied by Marines when he is presented to the press in Mexico City on February 22, 2014.
Alfredo Estrella | AFP | Getty Images
"Our husbands could maneuver themselves on both streets of Chicago up to the mountain peaks of Sinaloa. And they could navigate through both worlds," Olivia told American Greed.
But the deeper they got into the business, the more complicated life became.
"The more money they made, the more problems they had. Every good moment in our family was always overshadowed by a bad," said Mia.
Eventually, caught in the middle of an internal cartel skirmish, the twins turned to US prosecutors for a deal.
Another insider who turned against El Chapo was Vicente Zambada Niebla, eldest son of the current king of the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.
Vicente Zambada, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence after pleading guilty on the reduced counts, testified against El Chapo while Coronel watched in the courtroom. That has further fueled speculation that Coronel might be willing to turn the organization on.
The fact that the organization hardly seems to miss a blow even when its leaders attack one another shows the folly of US law enforcement's longstanding strategy of targeting drug lords, Vigil and Grillo told American Greed.
"The war on drugs was conceptually a failure," said Grillo. "And the king's strategy failed."
Grillo said that while it is important not to allow drug lords to operate with impunity, a better strategy is to target drug trafficking operations.
"I believe we need to look at the idea of harm reduction, and harm reduction means reducing the harm drugs do to Americans in deaths and addiction through overdose and reducing the harm from drug-related violence," said he.
He said that means more resources to treat drug addiction and to target organized crime and corruption in Mexico.
Vigil agreed, saying that in his 30 years with the DEA he had never agreed to the emphasis on drug lords.
"We here in the United States need to better reduce the demand for drugs," he said. "Because by the time we do that, if it's not Mexico, it will be in another country."
Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC and Telemundo.
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