The wife of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman played a key role in his infamous 2015 escape from prison through a tunnel dug into the shower of his cell, a witness testified yesterday at the kingpin's trial in New York.

Damaso Lopez Nunez, once a loyal lieutenant for Guzman, told the jury that Emma Coronel Aispuro helped her husband communicate with his sons and others who co-ordinated the breakout at Altiplano prison in central Mexico.

Coronel "was giving us his messages", Lopez told the jury, adding that she also was in on meetings about the escape.

After the Sinaloa cartel boss was recaptured and thrown in another Mexican lockup, the organisation paid a US$2 million ($2.95m) bribe to a prison official in exchange for getting him moved back to Altiplano, the witness said.

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Before that could happen, Guzman was sent in 2017 to the United States, where he's been kept in solitary confinement while facing drug-trafficking charges he says have been fabricated by co-operators like Lopez.

The testimony cast a harsh spotlight on a spouse who has sat quietly in the courtroom for most a trial that began in mid-November. Most of the attention on her so far has been for her wardrobe and her reaction to waves from the defendant.

Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman. Photo / Getty Images
Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman. Photo / Getty Images

As described by Lopez, the escape in 2015 was far more elaborate than one Guzman pulled off in 2001 by hiding in a prison laundry cart. It included smuggling a phone with GPS to Guzman so the plotters could determine where best to tunnel in, he said.

His followers also bought property near the facility as the starting point the 1.6km-long escape route, Lopez said. Work went on for months and was so loud it could be heard behind bars — to the point where inmates were complaining about it, he said.

On the day of the breakout, a motorcycle was used to race Guzman to the exit of the tunnel, where an ATV took him to a warehouse, the witness said.

He later was flown to his mountaintop hideaway.