She first appears in the distance, flanked by bodyguards while standing on the edge of a yacht. Then, she’s much closer, sipping from a champagne flute while staring off at the water in sunglasses.
“It’s sad that they judge us without knowing us,” says Emma Coronel Aispuro, the 30-year-old wife of the notorious drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in a reality-TV debut that aired Monday night.
Her initial appearance on VH1′s “Cartel Crew” is perhaps as bewildering as Coronel herself: A former teenage pageant queen, she has alternately sought out and hidden from the spotlight during her marriage to the infamous head of the violent Sinaloa cartel. The one constant, she said three years ago, is that her life has always been “in the eye of the hurricane."
If that’s the case, her turn on VH1′s “Cartel Crew,” a docuseries set in Miami, has kept her there.
Some called Coronel’s debut episode a “classy” first foray into the world of small-screen stardom. Many others, however, argued that it glorified her ties to a violent criminal organization that has trafficked millions of pounds of cocaine and carried out hundreds of acts of torture.
“This is a sick and terrible decision,” Ioan Grillo, a journalist in Mexico City, wrote on Twitter. “There is a humanitarian catastrophe in Mexico from cartel violence. This is not a glamorous reality show. Where are images of mass graves?”
The blowback came from politicians, too. In a letter to VH1 President Chris McCarthy on Wednesday, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) called on him to cancel “Cartel Crew,” which he slammed as “an offense to anyone, anywhere who has been affected by illegal drugs and the people who supply them.”
VH1 did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.
In her first few minutes on the TV show, Coronel seemed to speak to her critics directly. Now in its second season, “Cartel Crew” follows a cast of real-life Miami characters with former ties to the narcotics ring, exploring how it has affected their lives.
“I consider myself a normal woman, but people often judge me without actually knowing me,” Coronel says. In coming episodes, the series is expected to track her life since her husband’s sentencing.
Coronel has painted herself as the innocent daughter of a Mexican bean farmer, who had what she called a “very tranquil, simple childhood, within a loving, unified family.” But there have been dueling narratives over Coronel’s life for as long as she’s been in the public eye.
“She is not like a book. She is not easy to read,” Anabel Hernández, the author of the book, “Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers,” told Rolling Stone in March.
In 2006, when she was 17, her father introduced her to El Chapo, then 49, at a local dance in the Mexican village of Canelas. She later described feeling sparks as the two locked eyes in an interview with Telemundo.
“He was dancing with another girl. I was dancing with my boyfriend … and we crossed paths right in the center of the dance floor. He flirtatiously smiled at me,” Coronel said. “In the ranchos, even though you have a boyfriend, you can dance with every person who asks you to dance. So I said, ‘Of course!’”
Yet some speculate the whole meet-cute was also an orchestrated stunt so her father, Inés Coronel Barreras, could climb the ranks in the Sinaloa cartel. A medium-ranking lieutenant of Guzmán’s, Barreras was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for trafficking drugs and smuggling firearms.
The romance between Coronel and Guzmán has been mythologized as much as the legend of El Chapo himself. As the story goes, the drug kingpin arrived at her village, clad in all black and surrounded by a motorcade of bodyguards, to watch her announce her entry into a local beauty pageant. According to some versions of the tale, Guzmán bribed the judges to ensure Coronel would win. They were married in 2007.
During El Chapo’s final years on the run, his wife kept an especially low profile, giving birth to twin daughters and enrolling as a journalism student. The entire time, however, she had allegedly been helping to plan his famous 2015 prison break, when he escaped through a nearly mile-long tunnel dug under his prison shower.
When her husband was again arrested in 2016, Coronel broke her silence, insistent on standing by his side. “I will follow him to wherever he is,” she told the Los Angeles Times that year. “I am in love with him. He is the father of my children.”
Coronel started posting flashy photos of herself — practicing at a gun range, posing on the beach, hosting a lavish, pink-Barbie birthday for her daughters — on an Instagram profile that declares that “lots of people know of me, but few know who I am.” (Even her online presence, though, is more complicated than it seems: Coronel has denied having any social media sites at all.)
During Guzmán’s highly publicized trial earlier this year, she emerged as the subject of fascination and bewilderment, blowing kisses at her husband from the reserved second-row seat that she occupied every day of the trial.
When her text messages with the 62-year-old El Chapo — in which he asks her to hide his weapons — were displayed during the trial, she reportedly laughed.
In particular, observers pointed out an unwavering commitment as her husband was accused of brutal murders and frequent affairs. A judge denied the couple’s request to embrace during the trial, noting that such a “brief momentary greeting” would have violated the strict security procedures imposed on Guzmán. On the day his mistress took the stand, the two managed to wear matching maroon velvet jackets, in a sartorial show of solidarity.
“I don’t know my husband as the person they are trying to show him as,” Coronel told the New York Times during the trial. “But rather I admire him as the human being that I met, and the one that I married.”
After a nearly three-month trial, Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison last February for selling hundreds of tons of cocaine, conspiring to murder and running one of the world’s largest drug networks. Despite repeated speculation, and several testimonies pointing to her involvement, Coronel was never charged.
Since then, she made it back into the news for attempting to launch a clothing brand named after her husband — and getting his permission to do it. While in federal prison, El Chapo signed a contract to use his name with the label.
“I am very excited and hope I can create things that everyone likes,” Coronel wrote in an Instagram post that has since been deleted.
On Monday, that fashion line was presented as her segue into reality TV. Two of the stars of “Cartel Crew,” who run their own narco-inspired clothing label (named, in part, after a relative they call “cocaine godmother”), meet with her aboard a yacht in Miami as they talk business and sip from champagne flutes.
Their discussion moves from work to pleasure as one of the moguls, Marie Ramirez de Arellano, tells Coronel about a trip she’s planning to San Diego and Tijuana. Ramirez was born into the cartel life, but her group is nervous to enter a part of Mexico known for being under such tight control, she says
“Call me, and I’d be happy to go with you,” Coronel tells her, as they break out into a knowing chuckle.
“Contigo, sí,” Ramirez responds. “With you, I feel safe. Contigo, sí.”