Mexico's drug war shows a virulent feminine side
Saturday, July 12, 2008
By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News
CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – She remembers the moment her ambitions and fortunes as a smuggler grew. It was on a routine job, sneaking in booze, cigarettes and Argentinian wine. But as she ran across the shallow Rio Grande, she tripped on a rock and discovered, spilling along with the wine, bags of cocaine.
Thus began María Guadalupe's entry into the world of drug smuggling. Soon she was traveling to Colombia, where she represented her new employer: the Juárez cartel. Over a 20-year period, she said, she smuggled loads of coke to Dallas, Chicago and points beyond, including New York City.
"I've never killed anyone," said María Guadalupe (a pseudonym). "But that doesn't mean I'm afraid to use my .45. Don't underestimate me just because I'm a woman."
María Guadalupe isn't alone. In a sign that powerful drug cartels are extending their reach further into Mexican society, an increasing number of women are becoming involved in Mexico's drug trade, even as violence grows, authorities say.
"The numbers continue to grow, in spite of the violence we're witnessing," said Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso whose study on women in drug cartels was published in the winter edition of Anthropological Quarterly.
Some women get involved because of family ties or through a spouse; others, such as María Guadalupe, out of pure ambition. And their role isn't limited to smuggling. Some run their own organizations. Others broker deals between Mexican and Colombian traffickers. A growing number are trained as assassins, authorities say, including a 21-year-old Laredo woman trained at paramilitary camps in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Hidalgo.
The reasons for their increased participation include the expansion of the drug trade, which requires more workers of all kinds; increasing freedom for women in Mexican society; and economic necessity or the lure of easy money, Mr. Campbell said.
He based his findings on the rising number of women in U.S. and Mexican prisons for drug offenses, the rising number killed in drug violence, and on the information from dozens of interviews with women.
"Certainly, few women have the chance to become 'queen-kingpins,' " Mr. Campbell added, "yet their mere existence may serve as a role model and symbols of female power for common women in the drug trade, or those considering such a career."
A leader of the Tijuana cartel is alleged to be Enedina Arrellano Felix, whose brothers had managed the cartel, once the most powerful in Mexico.
Another prominent woman is Sandra Avila Beltrán, dubbed "La Reina del Pacifico," the Queen of the Pacific, for her alleged role in shipping cocaine from Colombia to Mexico for the Sinaloa cartel. She was arrested last year and faces charges of organized crime, money laundering and conspiracy to traffic drugs.
"We're definitely seeing more women, and we're seeing them playing a more important role," said Jack Riley, special agent in charge of the El Paso office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "They have other skills to influence rivals. They're more persuasive and more organized about their activities, whether money laundering or running their own operations."
An earlier crime figure known as "La Nacha" remains a legend in Ciudad Juárez. Ignacia Jasso arguably created the first Juárez cartel in the 1920s when she ran a heroin business from her middle-class neighborhood near the international bridge to El Paso, according to author Francisco Cruz, whose book, The Juarez Cartel, documents her exploits. Her main clients were U.S. soldiers addicted to heroin, the book and Mr. Campbell say, and her competition was virtually nonexistent after she ordered the killing of 11 rival Chinese traffickers.
"Her legend remains very much alive," Mr. Campbell said, "as many of the current female smugglers look to her as a successful role model."
From the time she arrived in Ciudad Juárez in the early 1980s, María Guadalupe knew of La Nacha. A native of Durango state, María Guadalupe said she was attracted to AK-47s, getaway cars and "anything that represented the macho world of smugglers." In Juárez, she found shelter with her aunt, a hard-drinking prostitute.
"Everyone talked about La Nacha, and so, in a way, La Nacha and my aunt became my role models into a different, more adventurous life," she said.
María Guadalupe "engrossed" herself with her new profession. She practiced target shooting and began carrying a gun. And she learned to separate business from personal matters.
"The key is not to let any male dominate you, either in bed or in the heart. It's all business," said María Guadalupe. "At least that's my philosophy, and one that I believe has kept me alive all these years."
For others, the life is anything but glamorous.
In Laredo, Texas, a 21-year-old woman identified as "Josefina" recounts in a police video how she got involved with the paramilitary group known as the Zetas at the age of 17. She was trained in their camps. Fearing for her family if she tried to get out, she says, she continued her association with the Zetas, doing "whatever task was asked of me."
"It was a very difficult life, not as pretty as was described to me," she said.
And U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials tell the story of a female police officer in Nuevo Laredo who was moonlighting for the Zetas and sharing intelligence with U.S. and Mexican authorities. When the Zetas killed her husband, she plotted revenge. But the adventure ended when she was gunned down in a car in downtown Nuevo Laredo.