Female Narcos: The women of the Sinaloa Cartel

Aerial photo of Mazatlan beach Mexico with waves flowing over the shore
Image: Unsplash Images

Despite the machismo involved in organised crime, a world run by men, women often play pivotal roles. Even in patriarchal cultures such as those in the world of Culiacán-based drug cartels.

These are the real housewives of the Sinaloa Cartel:

Emma Coronel Aispuro

Let’s kick off with the undisputed Queen of the Sinaloa Cartel, the better half of El Chapo himself, Emma Coronel Aispuro. When the billionaire drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman married Coronel some 13 years ago, not much was thought of it. She was a beauty queen, a young trophy wife. Quiet and in the background, she was dismissed as a ‘Narco Barbie’ and rarely discussed. Until El Chapo’s famous arrest(s).

Now in her early 30s, it’s become clear that Mrs El Chapo is no trophy wife. In fact, she was integral to her husband's famous 2015 jailbreak, involving herself in the planning and execution of the escape.

Throughout her husband’s lengthy trial after being recaptured, Coronel sat quietly in the courthouse, supportive of Guzman. She didn’t flinch at any of the details of his numerous affairs, refusing to appear affected by the fact that his tracking of his multiple mistresses eventually helped police capture him. She wouldn’t even publicly accept that El Chapo was Mexico’s answer to Pablo Escobar.

The story goes deeper, however. In February 2021, she was arrested at Dulles Airport in Virginia on drug trafficking charges. Not only did she step up after Guzman’s arrest, it seems she was heavily involved in his day-to-day business when he was running things. Her only chance at getting off? To assist prosecutors with their case against Guzman’s sons who have officially taken over the cartel.

Vivianna Lopez & Valerie Gaytan (aka Mia & Olivia Flores)

Pedro and Margarito Flores worked under El Chapo in the Sinaloa Cartel, moving more than 2,000lbs of cocaine a month for years. They brought their boss over $2bn in cash back. They eventually flipped on their employer when arrested by the US and received a sweetheart deal for turning on El Chapo. They only served a few of their 14-year sentences and are already thought to be out on probation. Presumably looking over their shoulders a fair bit.

Rewind 15 years and while The Flores Twins were trafficking drugs and taking the risk, it was their wives who were plotting the logistics, running the money laundering schemes and generally being the brains behind it all. Vivianna and Valerie pleaded not guilty and, given their husbands’ decision to rat out El Jefe (with that same boss’ sons now helping run the cartel), they’re living in anonymity under false names.

Rosario Niebla Cardoza

With El Chapo in jail and rather unlikely to be out any time soon, a new boss was needed for the Sinaloa Cartel. Guzman’s sons would take on more responsibility and his wife Emma certainly pitched in, but the throne could only accept one man: Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada. El Chapo’s long-time partner and friend.

El Mayo may not be a progressive man in many areas of life, but when it comes to women in organised crime, he’s a veritable feminist and certainly no sexist when it comes to women working for the cartel. El Mayo's wife Rosario Niebla Cardoza, as well as all of his four daughters María Teresa, Midiam Patricia, Mónica del Rosario, and Modesta all work for the family business, helping distribute narcotics and - more importantly - launder cash.

There are still plenty of men at the head of the cartel, but these five women aren’t there to dish up tostadas and cervezas to the fellas. They deal with the one thing more important than drugs to a Mexican drug cartel… Money.

Guadalupe Leija Serrano

We end on something of a tragic tale. People have affairs and leave their spouses all the time. Ordinarily, there are a few tears, some arguments and a couple of hefty solicitors’ bills. In the world of narcos, however, things tend to get a fair bit messier. We’d suggest you ask Héctor Luis Palma Salazar’s wife Guadalope Leija Serrano about it. But you can’t.

Guadalope fell in love with Venezuelan drug trafficker and trusted associate of 'El Jefe de Jefe' Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the cold-blooded Enrique Rafael Clavel Moreno. A lot of women did. He was handsome and charming. He was also a vicious killer. Working for the Guadalajara Cartel at the time, he was tasked with settling a score with Sinaloa lieutenant Salazar. Moreno did so and in some stomach-churning style.

After seducing Salazar’s wife, he convinced the woman to withdraw $7m from her husband’s account, gather up their two children Nataly and Hector and leave the family home. Moreno had no desire to set up home with Serrano and her two kids, however.

We conclude on a note that proves that even if some cartel wives are able to mix it as narcos, it’s still very much a man’s world. A brutal man’s world… One night, as they finished making love, Moreno killed Serrano and decapitated her. He sent the newly-severed head to her husband Palma in a box. He then threw the two children off the Concordia Bridge, videoing the horror and including the tape in the package to Palma.

A grim note to end on, certainly. But it’s a grim life to be caught up in.