She sang for ‘El Chapo.’ Now the cartel kingpin’s lawyer wants to be a ranchera star

 A woman in a silver shirt and burgundy cowboy hat sings into a microphone.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)
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Mariel Colón had just finished law school and was waiting for the results of the bar exam when she replied to a Craigslist ad looking for a Spanish-speaking paralegal to help with translation on a major case.

Only later did she learn that she’d be working on one of the biggest trials of the decade, helping defend the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel chief Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

The inmate Colón encountered deep in the bowels of a Manhattan prison seemed hungry for human connection after years of isolation in jail. So as Colón explained to Guzmán what the attorneys on his drug trafficking and murder conspiracy case were planning, she looked for ways to bond.

“I told him I love singing,” she said. “And he told me he loves music.”

Colón learned his favorite songs — banda and ranchera classics — and serenaded him there in the jailhouse. He applauded.


She credits Guzmán, 68, with rekindling her love of performing and sparking her interest in the rich tradition of Mexican country music. And so, as her legal career blossomed and she carved out an expertise representing drug traffickers like El Chapo, she also pursued an unlikely side hustle: as a swaggering singer of corridos under the stage name La Abogada — the Lawyer.

On a recent sweltering weekend, at a California festival billed as the Coachella of ranchera music, young couples in jeans and boots spun around in the dirt as all-male bands from both sides of the border swigged tequila from the bottle and played boisterous songs about epic parties, grievous infidelities and the daring lives of drug traffickers.

Backstage, on a tour bus whose windows looked out at acres of California almond groves, Colón waited nervously to perform. She wore a merlot-colored cowboy hat fresh out of the box and matching boots whose heels lifted her just above 5 feet.

In the testosterone-heavy world of regional Mexican music, the 33-year-old Puerto Rican singer knew she was a bit out of place. “I’m female,” she said. “And I’m not Mexican.”

A man holds an AK-47-shaped tequila bottle as another man holds the end and puts his hand over his mouth after a swig.
Abraham Siguenza holds an AK-47-shaped decanter holding tequila after pouring a shot into musician Chavela Vasquez’s mouth at the Ranchela Music Festival in Tracy.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)
Attendees dance in cowboy hats and jeans dance in the dirt at a music festival.
Festival attendees dance at the Ranchela Music Festival in Tracy.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

But she had one big thing going for her that none of the other bands could claim: a close bond with the man lionized in many of the narcocorridos the musicians were belting onstage.

Colón, who today is Guzmán’s primary lawyer, is one of the few people permitted to visit him in the Colorado supermax prison where he is serving a life sentence. And while the details of their twice monthly meetings never make it into her songs (“attorney-client privilege,” she explains), her proximity to Mexico’s most notorious cartel boss is an undeniable selling point in a culture obsessed with all things narco.

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She has leaned heavily into the lawyer persona. In her first music video, filmed in a courtroom, she wore a hot pink pantsuit and crooned: “Good morning, judge, please give me the floor. I have come to defend a broken heart.”

It was a bit gimmicky, sure, and as a woman in the famously machista industry of Mexican regional music, Colón felt the odds were stacked against her. But she was banking on the undeniable force of her singing voice, the public’s everlasting obsession with Guzmán — and her own tenacity.

“If I made it on the Chapo case, I’m going to make it here,” she said. Then she stepped from her tour bus and strode with her band onto the stage.

Before Colón was a lawyer, she was a musician.

She grew up around salsa, merengue and pop in Puerto Rico, where her father was a percussionist and band leader. She begged her parents for voice lessons and took any opportunity to perform, dancing alongside her dad’s bands onstage and dressing up as a clown for her parents’ kids party business.

He’s slender and short / But with a big brain /Active and humanitarian / He’s also a snake

Colón dreamed of fame as a singer, but her family, aware of the challenges of the music industry, pushed her to take a more conventional path. She studied music business at Loyola University in New Orleans and law at Hofstra University in New York. She planned at first to be an entertainment lawyer, but found herself drawn to the courtroom drama of criminal cases.

“Criminal law is exactly like performing,” she said. “Your audience is the judge and jury. You have a story line and you have to convince them of it.”

She met Guzmán in 2018. Known as El Chapo, or Shorty, because of his height, he had been extradited to the U.S. to face trial after twice escaping prison in Mexico. Back home, Guzmán was often viewed as folk hero: a rags-to-riches country kid from the Sinaloa sierra known for his generosity with locals and his keen ability to evade authorities. But prosecutors accused him of fueling an addiction crisis in the U.S. and ruthlessly torturing and killing competitors. During his trial, they shared evidence that Guzmán had burned the bodies of rivals — and once ordered a man to be killed after he refused to shake the cartel boss’ hand.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán ducks his head as he walks while being detained by people in camoflauge.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, is shown 10 years ago as he is escorted to a helicopter in Mexico City after his capture in Mazatlán.
(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Colón knew little about Guzmán when she first met him inside the cement fortress that is Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.

In between translations of plans for opening statements and cross-examinations, they talked about their shared love of music. Guzmán was a devotee of Mexican regional music — an umbrella term that refers to the subgenres of country popular in different parts of Mexico. Colón, who knew little about the style, researched his favorite bands and singers, including Jenni Rivera and Los Tucanes de Tijuana. And she went about teaching him tunes from contemporary musicians, like Peso Pluma, a more contemporary singer who sings frequently about El Chapo, and who was recently threatened by a rival cartel for his perceived sympathies to Sinaloa.

She loved the way the regional songs were composed and the intensity of the lyrics.

“I’m very dramatic and very passionate,” she said. “I mean, it was just perfect for me.”

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El Chapo had connections / with Colombian drug traffickers / and trafficked drugs / from South America / to the North

When Colón was admitted to the bar in late 2018, Guzmán asked if she would join his defense team as a trial attorney. His more experienced lawyers shaped most of the strategy. But once the tribunal began, Colón often found herself in the spotlight, giving interviews to Spanish-language journalists and gaining tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, where she posted courtroom sketches of herself and content praising Guzmán’s wife, a former beauty queen named Emma Coronel who had become a close friend.

Guzmán was eventually convicted of smuggling massive amounts of narcotics into the U.S. during the decades he led the brutal Sinaloa cartel.

Although the defense team had lost the case, the phone in Colón’s Brooklyn law office kept ringing.

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It turned out many accused drug traffickers — even those from rival cartels — wanted the chance to work with El Chapo’s attorney. Colón also briefly worked on the case of sex offender and sex-trafficking defendant Jeffrey Epstein before he committed suicide.

 A woman with long dark hard stands near the front of a vehicle outside a courthouse as people hold up phones and cameras.
Mariel Colón leaves a courthouse in Washington, D.C., after the sentencing three years ago of Emma Coronel, the wife of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzmán. Colón became close with Coronel during Guzmán’s trial.
( Yasin Ozturk / Getty Images)

Colón loved her work. A devout Christian, she had no qualms about representing people accused of heinous crimes; she said her religion taught her not to judge others. She liked advocating for clients such as Guzmán, whose isolation in the Colorado prison she has repeatedly argued is inhumane.


But she still felt a calling to music — and specifically wanted to explore the genre Guzmán had turned her onto.

She asked her clients what they thought about her launching a music career. Colón said they all gave her their blessing.

“They know I’m always singing,” she said. “And they’re the only ones who should have a say, because they’re the ones paying me.”


 Mariel Colón in silhouette


Arturo Hernandez with  Mariel Colón

1. Colón at the Tracy festival. 2. Fellow attorney Arturo Hernández backstage with Colón. (Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Colón says one of her biggest supporters was Coronel, 34, who served two years in prison after pleading guilty to helping run her husband’s drug empire.

Days after Coronel was freed last fall, she was spotted sipping cocktails in the VIP section of a Lynwood nightclub where Colón was performing. The headlines that followed brought new attention to Colón’s singing career.


“I didn’t want it to be a PR stunt,” Colón said of Coronel’s visit. “I just wanted my friend who had just gotten out of prison to see me perform because she’s always been very supportive of me.”

Every two weeks, Colón flies into Colorado Springs and drives 40 miles to one of the country’s most intensely guarded prisons. There, she spends four or five hours with Guzmán, who spends 23 hours a day locked in a 7-by-12-foot cell. Guzmán has almost no contact with the outside world — not even his wife is allowed to visit him.

Guzmán and Colón talk legal matters, yes, but also personal things, ranging from stories about their childhoods to Colón’s love life.

“He knows a lot about me, and I know a lot about him,” she said. She admits that some of the anecdotes he has shared would make for great lyrics. But Colón said she draws a clear boundary between her two careers.

“I have to be really careful about what I sing about,” she said.

A woman holding a mic near her face reaches toward the audience from a stage.
Colón performs at the festival in Tracy. “If I made it on the Chapo case, I’m going to make it here,” she said of her music career.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)
On the most wanted list/ Everyone in the world knows it/ The media compares me to Bin Laden/ Because I also have my Taliban

Just before Colón took the stage at the festival in Tracy, a video played on a massive screen. It showed clips of her getting out of a car in a slick pantsuit, taking tequila shots with a group of friends, and in a hot tub surrounded by candles. A picture of a young Guzmán flashed. “Many know her as the lawyer of El Chapo,” a male voice intoned.

Colón — who only started releasing music last year and is still at work on her first EP — was one of the lesser known names to play at the festival. As she took the stage, the response from the crowd was lukewarm at first.

But as she started singing — first a song by Rivera, later a cover of a corrido about El Chapo (“The Earth turns and stops / If Joaquín orders it”) — the crowd warmed up. Women, in particular, seemed excited by her presence in the otherwise all-male lineup.

After she finished, throwing black-dyed roses into the crowd, she stepped off stage and got a hug from Arturo Hernández, a gray-haired man in a Santa Clara Law sweatshirt.

Hernández, an attorney who has represented many cartel members, met Colón during the Guzmán trial when she asked him for information on Sinaloa. He saw in her parallels with his own career and took her under his wing. In the 1980s, he was a young attorney just starting out when he represented serial killer Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker.

A woman wearing a silver top and men in black stand and smile near a tour bus.
Colón hangs out with her band after their performance at the Ranchela Music Festival.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Hernández had advised her on how to handle the media. He supported her, too, when she told him she wanted to be a singer. His advice, both times, was the same.

“Have fun,” he said. “Enjoy the ride.”

She is enjoying it. Although the demands of the music industry, which requires artists to also be influencers, can be a lot.

Some people have asked what will happen to her legal career if her music takes off. If that happens, she knows she might have to reduce her caseload.

But she said she’ll forever be loyal to El Chapo.

“I have a responsibility to make sure that he has the best quality of life, whether it be inside or outside and especially if it’s inside,” she said. She feels the same way about Coronel, whom she is advising on several potential business ventures.

“They gave me my first opportunity,” she said. “I’d cancel concerts for them.”

As the sun sank over California farm country, the young crowd outside kept dancing and drinking, and Colón and her team prepared to head out. She had some recording in San Francisco to do. Some cases to work on. And a few days later, a trip to Colorado to make.