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November 30, 2021

El Chapo's wife sentenced to three years in federal prison (guidelines be damned)

This Vice article provides a thorough accounting of a notable federal sentencing with this rousing start: "Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera became infamous for daring jailbreaks in Mexico only to end up serving life in prison in the United States. Now his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, has managed to avoid a similar fate."  Here is more from the piece: 

The 32-year-old Coronel was sentenced Tuesday to just three years in prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to charges that she helped her husband run his drug trafficking empire, facilitated one of his prison escapes in Mexico, and violated U.S. sanctions by spending his illicit fortune. She also paid nearly $1.5 million to the U.S. government.

It could have ended much worse for Coronel, who faced up to 14 years for her crimes under federal sentencing guidelines.  Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., asked her judge for leniency, calling for her to serve just four years behind bars and fueling speculation that she’d struck a deal to cooperate.

Coronel’s attorneys and federal prosecutors made the case to sentencing Judge Rudolph Contreras that she only played a minimal role in the cartel and that her crimes were committed simply because she was married to El Chapo. “The defendant was not an organizer, leader, boss, or other type of manager,” prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi said. “Rather, she was a cog in a very large wheel of a criminal organization.”

A soft-spoken Coronel addressed the court in Spanish before the judge handed down the sentence, asking for forgiveness and making a plea for leniency so that she could be free to raise her 10-year-old twin daughters, who were fathered by El Chapo....

The light sentence has raised eyebrows among ex-prosecutors who handled similar cases against high-level drug traffickers and their associates.  “Downward departure,” or a sentence below the range called for by federal guidelines, is typically reserved for individuals who agree to assist the government in some capacity, David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, told VICE News.  “They’re treating her like a cooperator,” said Weinstein, who now works as a defense attorney.  “These are the types of circumstances where people are involved in large-scale drug trafficking conspiracies and are benefiting the kingpin and helping the kingpin. You usually don’t get downward departure unless you’re providing substantial assistance.”

Coronel, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico, was taken into custody by FBI agents on Feb. 22 after arriving at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.  While federal authorities announced that Coronel had been “arrested,” sources familiar with her case told VICE News she was aware of pending charges against her and came to turn herself in.

Coronel has been held since February at a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, and is now expected to be transferred into the federal prison system to serve out her sentence. She will receive credit for time served and could be released in just over two years.

If prosecutors truly believed Coronel had only played a minimal role and was merely El Chapo’s wife, it's unclear why she was even charged in the first place because her prosecution would be a waste of time and resources, according to Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York.  Klapper, now in private practice, said Coronel’s sentence “is a very clear demonstration of how prosecutors can manipulate the sentencing guidelines to either punish or reward a defendant.”...

In sentencing Coronel, Judge Contreras noted that putting her behind bars for a long time would do little to dissuade anyone else from joining the Sinaloa Cartel. In fact, he said, there was little indication that prosecuting El Chapo had any impact on the cartel’s operations.  “One can make a plausible argument that even the removal of 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 replacements to fill the defendant’s slot in the organization.”

Contreras noted Coronel’s “impoverished” upbringing and the involvement of her family members in the drug trade, and indicated that he believed that she was a victim of her circumstances who was very young and impressionable when she married El Chapo. “I hope you raise your twins in a different environment than you’ve experienced to date,” Contreras said in his parting words to Coronel. “Good luck.”

This article is astute to note how this case highlights "manipulation" of the federal sentencing guidelines and sentencing outcomes. Indeed, the Government's sentencing memo in the case showcases how the guidelines can function more like a parlor game than as a steady guide to sensible sentencing.  According to that memo, Coronel's PSR initially "concluded that the Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range in this case was 135 months to 168 months ... [and] neither the Government nor the Defendant objected to this Guidelines calculation."  But, sometime thereafter, the Government decided "that Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range is 57 to 71 months in prison ... [and] Defendant and the Probation Office concur."

In other words, everyone in this case first determined that the guidelines recommended 11+ to 14 years in prison, but then later everyone decided the guidelines recommended less than half that length of time.  And then, guidelines be damned, the government decided to recommend a sentence of 48 months (nine months below the low end of the lower guideline range).  And then Judge Contreras decided that 36 months was a sufficient sentence. 

Of course, one might reasonably expect the guidelines to be a poor "fit" for this kind of unique case with its many unique elements.  But, then again, a quarter century ago in Koon v. US, 518 U.S. 81 (1996), the Supreme Court rightly made this closing observation: "It has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue."

November 30, 2021 at 09:34 PM | Permalink


This was an interesting post. I think this blog does best—like here—when it stays closest to the heartland of its namesake subject matter. As a general matter, I agree it seems like something really fishy is going on.

Since the gov't's memo wasn't that long, and much of it was boilerplate or just recitation of the background, I decided to delve in. Keep in mind of course I have zero experience with sentencing issues, but I can at least manage basic reading comprehension (I hope!).

It seems to me most of the action happens in two places: (1) last paragraph of page 8, which calculates the offense level and (2) subsections III.c-e from the end of page 11 to most of page 12.

Taking (1) for the offense level first, it seems basically fine to me, I guess. One can certainly read §2D1.1(a)(5) like the gov't proposes and get to the 32 offense level. But I still have two questions. One, why did Probation not arrive at that number in the first place, instead landing on 38? If I understand things correctly, it seems like Probation goofed in two different ways. Not only did they not apply §2D1.1(a)(5)(iii) to go from 38 to 34—because of the mitigating/minimal role reduction—but they also failed to account for the last sentence of §2D1.1(a)(5), which takes the 34 down further to 32.

My second question for offense level goes specifically to the mitigating/minimal role reduction under §3B1.2(a). Does the application of that alone, combined with the corresponding reduction it generates in §2D1.1(a)(5)(iii), somehow lead to double dipping? It sort of seems that way. Not only do you get a 4-level reduction in §3B1.2(a) itself, but then you get 4 levels reduced again because of the operation of §2D1.1(a)(5)(iii)—at least when the level coming in is 38. Is that how it's meant to work?

Regardless of the above, on (1), you can at least see how the guidelines could result in that number, even if the big discrepancy with Probation and the possible double-dipping feel weird. FWIW, my take is that Coronel hardly comes across as a "minimal" participant, or even a "minor" one eligible for a somewhat lesser reduction.

On to (2) for the statutory factors. This is where I think it gets even fuzzier. III.c for adequate deterrence is just two brief sentences and doesn't really posit any particular result, so I'm even not sure what to say to that. III.d for protecting the public is where the rubber really hits the road because that seems to be the entire basis for the final drop to 48 months. Strangely, the gov't just has a 1-liner there consisting of: "The Defendant does not have a criminal history beyond the instant offenses and swiftly accepted responsibility for her actions in the instant matter." In my view, the nature and seriousness of the misconduct (which the gov't seems to concede in subsection III.a) easily outweighs any of this. III.e for avoiding disparities doesn't give much to work with either. A lot of it is just boilerplate or vague, so it's hard to evaluate. Returning to a theme from above, it also seems to double dip on acceptance of responsibility by citing that repeatedly after the gov't just relied on that in previous subsection III.d.

At the end of the day, I guess I see less "manipulation" of the guidelines themselves than with balancing the statutory factors. And that makes sense, because balancing tests are much easier to manipulate than mechanical (for the most part) calculations.

It seems to me the real question is why is the gov't soft-pedalling so much on the statutory factors when a more severe punishment could easily be warranted by the misconduct alone? From the Vice article, my impression is the gov't is getting lots of valuable cooperation from Coronel, but doesn't want to disclose that fact. Does anyone know the reason they're so cagey about disclosing it?

Posted by: kotodama | Dec 1, 2021 11:14:22 AM

I'd like to unpack this one a little bit later - but some things come to mind initially. Multiple counts of conviction, but if they are using the Money Laundering guideline 2S1.1 - and specifically 2S1.1(a)(1) when determining the BOL, you also have to read the app notes - see 2S1.1, App. Note 2(C) - chapter 3 adjustments are to be determined based upon the offense covered by this (2S1.1) guideline - in other words, not the drug (2D1.1) guideline. But, maybe the drug guidelines under 2D1.1 produce a higher offense level. Similar to what kotodoma is noting, there is a lot going on and I suspect a lot going on that we - the public - may not be privy too, eg. cooperation.

Posted by: atomicfrog | Dec 1, 2021 12:05:44 PM

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