Written by: Alan Feuer
In the early morning of February 17, 2014, Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera was in bed with his mistress — one of many — when his personal secretary burst into the room with an urgent message: Troops were at the door. Time to leave.
Guzmán — naked — ran into the bathroom, beckoning the rest of his household to come with him. Popping the top on his escape hatch, he lifted the lid of the bathtub to reveal a set of wooden stairs leading to a tunnel. As a tactical team of Mexican marines used a battering ram on his front door, the kingpin known as El Chapo disappeared into the tunnel’s humid darkness — and into the annals of criminal myth.
Like other legends that surround Guzmán, the basic facts of his flight from the marines five years ago have been told so often they have started to develop the haziness of a fable. But on Thursday, the tale was told again, not only with astonishing new details, but by a stunning firsthand source: Lucero Guadalupe Sánchez López, the mistress who escaped into the tunnel at his side.
In an afternoon of testimony at Guzmán’s drug trial in New York, Sánchez took the jury through an almost unbelievable drug world love story, starting with the moment she met the crime lord at age 21 and ending with a terrifying trudge through Culiacán’s sewers.
In three years of tortured romance, she recounted, Sánchez served as Guzmán’s “house wife” and his unpaid partner in crime, buying kilograms of pot for him, setting up his front companies and often making sure he had fresh underwear. Even though she testified to all of this as a prosecution witness, Sánchez still appeared to be in love with the drug lord — at one point erupting into tears on the stand.
“Until today, I’m still confused,” she told the jury, “because I thought, in our relationship, we were romantically involved, as partners.”
Now 29, Sánchez, a former lawmaker from the state of Sinaloa, was arrested in 2017 while trying to enter the United States at the San Diego border. Though she did not know it at the time, Sánchez had been a target of a sprawling wiretap investigation by U.S. federal agents. As part of a separate inquiry, her private texts with Guzmán had also been intercepted after the kingpin’s IT expert installed commercial spyware on her BlackBerry, then gave the password to the FBI.
Several of the messages shown to the jury Thursday painted a portrait of the cartel couple as something like a Mexican Bonnie and Clyde. In one of the messages, Sánchez told her lover that she had just stamped dozens of kilos of his marijuana with a brand that included a heart and the No. 4 — a reference to the crime lord’s birthday, April 4.
“The heart means I love you,” Sánchez wrote. “And the 4 means I bless the day you came into this world.”
Guzmán’s wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, was sitting in the courtroom when this narco pillow talk was projected on a screen. The dynamic was — to say the least — a little awkward. When Sánchez took the stand at 2 p.m., her habitual facial twitch was exacerbated, apparently by anxiety. Coronel played with her hair and largely stared forward. Guzmán refused to meet either woman’s gaze.
The bizarre telenovela, unfolding live in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, only became more dramatic when Sánchez, after breaking into tears, calmed herself and narrated her escape with Guzmán into the tunnel in Culiacán.
She said the kingpin ran ahead at first, leaving her with his maid and secretary — a man known only as Condor — in “a humid place filled with water and mud.” The fugitives were down there for at least an hour, wandering in the wet and dark for long enough “to traumatize me,” she recalled. They finally emerged, Sánchez said, near a river. The rest of her story was cut short by the regular end of the trial day.
Before Sánchez took the stand, jurors heard what happened after the escape from Victor Vazquez, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration who was embedded with the Mexican marines during the capture operation. Vazquez described a high-stakes game of cat and mouse as the marines pursued Guzmán on a nightlong chase through several of the drug lord’s safe houses, which were connected by a series of secret tunnels.
The marines never found Guzmán that night, but they found some of his belongings: a rocket-propelled grenade launcher; his monogrammed, diamond-encrusted pistol; and crates of plastic bananas filled with cocaine.
After tracking Guzmán with almost real-time information from the U.S. wiretap on the cartel’s phones, the marines eventually discovered he had fled to Mazatlán and was holed up in a room at the Hotel Miramar, a block from the beach, Vazquez said.
The troops, he added, took extreme precautions approaching Mazatlán, shedding their uniforms and buying flip-flops and board shorts from a local Walmart. After staking out the hotel, Vazquez said, they prepared to raid it — on Feb. 22, in the hours before dawn.
When the operation started, Vazquez said, a group of Mexican marines went into the hotel as he stood waiting in the lobby. Within minutes, he reported, a coded message came over his radio: “7-7-7, confirmado.”
At that point, Vazquez said, “I knew they had got him.”
Running down to the hotel’s basement parking lot, Vazquez said he saw the kingpin on his knees, in a dirty T-shirt, surrounded by his captors.
“It’s you,” he recalled telling Guzmán, who would within a year escape from prison (again).
But it was not only him. The marines had also found Coronel and the couple’s twin toddler daughters.
After fleeing with his mistress, Guzmán had returned to — and had been arrested with — his wife.