WASHINGTON — Two years after the Mexican drug lord nicknamed “El Chapo” began serving life behind bars in the United States, his wife, who admitted taking part in his multibillion-dollar smuggling operation and aiding his notorious 2015 tunnel escape from a Mexican prison, was sentenced Tuesday to 36 months in a federal penitentiary.

Emma Coronel Aispuro, whose husband, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, reigned for years as boss of Mexico’s murderous Sinaloa Cartel, pleaded guilty in June to three charges in U.S. District Court in Washington, including conspiracy to distribute 100 tons of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.

“I address you today to express my true regret … and ask that you and all the citizens of this country forgive me,” Coronel, 32, told Judge Rudolph Contreras in Spanish. Speaking through an interpreter, she said, “I am sorry.”

Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, arrives at federal court in New York in 2019. Mark Lennihan/Associated Press file

The Justice Department and Coronel’s lawyers agreed that advisory sentencing guidelines in her case called for prison time in the range of 51 to 71 months. A prosecutor recommended only 48 months, noting that Coronel was a small “cog in a very large wheel of a powerful criminal organization” and that she “quickly accepted responsibility” after her February arrest.

But defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman asked for more leniency, saying Coronel, a former beauty queen, married El Chapo on her 18th birthday, when he was 49, and spent her adulthood under his sway. “Her involvement … was in many ways just being Joaquín Guzmán’s wife,” Lichtman said, arguing that her role in the organization should be “judged through the lens of how she entered it.”

Contreras, in giving her 36 months, indicated he agreed.

As part of a plea deal, Coronel admitted she helped her husband, now 64, keep control of the Sinaloa Cartel from his cell in a supposedly high-security Mexican prison before his escape in July 2015. She conceded that prosecutors could show she delivered messages from El Chapo to cartel associates as he continued directing and profiting from drug smuggling while in custody.

She acknowledged she received $1 million in heroin proceeds that were owed to Guzmán and used intermediaries to distribute some of the cash as bribes to ensure favorable treatment for him in the prison, known as Altiplano, near Mexico City.

And in a caper seemingly straight out of Hollywood, she admitted giving her incarcerated husband a GPS device disguised as food. Aided by the device, cartel engineers burrowed a mile-long tunnel, 33 feet deep, that came up under the shower stall in El Chapo’s cell.

The tunnel originated on property that Coronel acknowledged buying for the escape.

After months in hiding, the stout, 5-foot-6-inch kingpin, whose nickname roughly translates to “Shorty,” was captured in January 2016 and extradited to the United States a year later. He was convicted of federal drug-trafficking charges in 2019 and sentenced to life. In his years atop the cartel, authorities said, he raked in an estimated $14 billion and was responsible for innumerable acts of savage violence.

“He won me over with his kindness and his manners,” Coronel once told an interviewer. She and Guzmán are parents of 11-year-old twin daughters.

At El Chapo’s trial in Brooklyn, N.Y., his wife cut a striking figure, arriving in fashionable outfits, stiletto heels and oversized sunglasses. From her reserved seat in the courtroom gallery, she would occasionally blow kisses to her husband.

“The Kardashian of Sinaloa,” she was dubbed. She launched a clothing line in El Chapo’s name and appeared on the VH1 reality show “Cartel Crew.”

Then, on Feb. 22 this year, Coronel was arrested by federal agents at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. In addition to the drug conspiracy charge, she pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiring to launder money and conducting a financial transaction intended to evade U.S. government sanctions against her husband.

Coronel “opted to take accountability for her actions, and she did so quickly,” prosecutor Anthony J. Nardozzi said in recommending a lesser sentence than called for by the guidelines. He said she “saved the government the considerable time and resources that would have been required to engage in adversarial proceedings against her.”

Lichtman, in seeking a shorter prison term for his client than the prosecutor wanted, said Coronel’s safety has been imperiled by loose-lipped federal authorities.

“The danger she finds herself in is due to the numerous … anonymous comments from government agents claiming that she cooperated with the government,” Lichtman told the judge. Calling those news leaks “garbage,” he said, “It’s made it so that I don’t know if she can ever go home again to Mexico.”

In sentencing her to less time than Nardozzi asked for, Contreras said, “Her husband’s long-term incarceration makes it highly unlikely she will return to the cartel’s work, given that her efforts were tied directly to him.” And he said no amount of prison time for Coronel would impact the Sinaloa Cartel’s business.

“In fact … even the removal of Mr. Guzmán from the conspiracy has not resulted in a reduction of harm to the public,” the judge said. “There appears to be no shortage of available replacements to fill the defendant’s slot in the organization.”

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