Three striking sisters, women in their 20s from the Mexican metropolis of Monterrey, were riding in the back of a late-model minivan with friends toward the shopping malls of Houston, when a Laredo customs agent noticed something out of place.
The driver of the white 2005 Chrysler Voyager with Nuevo Leon plates, a 42-year-old hairdresser, seemed a bit too nervous for a northbound shopper at the No. 2 International bridge. And inspectors noticed that the women appeared overly voluptuous, particularly in the bust, thighs and bottom.
All five were ordered out and patted down, where — under layers of fashionable clothing — each wore five to seven pounds of cocaine bricks with a total street value of nearly $1 million. The sister smugglers and their friends recently were sentenced to serve up to 74 months in federal prison here.
All were first-time offenders but part of a growing wave of “mulas,” female smugglers who bring unique characteristics and techniques to the border drug trade. Notably, they can hide drug shipments between breasts, stuffed in brassieres, wigs and in other distinctively feminine clothing, in faked pregnancies or even surgically implanted in the buttocks, according to government agents and a 2008 study of women smugglers by an El Paso professor.
Women have advantage
Unusual recent busts of groups of female “body carriers” suggest narco recruiters may be targeting more affluent women who can use nice clothes and new cars as “camouflage” to blend with border shoppers, immigration officials said.
At the time of their 2008 arrest, the cocaine the five women wore constituted the year’s largest seizure of bodily-concealed drugs smuggled at the busy Laredo border.
Jerry Robinette, special agent in charge of San Antonio’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, said women smugglers have distinct advantages over men: “They have babies, diaper bags, loose clothing, dresses ... more conducive to hiding things.”
Drug trade participation by female smugglers has “increased exponentially” in the past 20 to 30 years, according to research by El Paso-based anthropology professor Howard Campbell.
Just this week, one 17-year-old was caught at the Matamoros-Brownsville border with more than 28 pounds of cocaine in a secret compartment in her 2007 Pontiac. Three sisters, ages 23, 27 and 31, were arrested with their mother last year when a border drug dog sniffed the family’s 2006 Mercedes. The women had 19 pounds of cocaine in their girdles and all face federal prison sentences.
In 2008, Campbell published a profile of El Paso/Juarez area female smugglers based partly on interviews with more than 50 mulas, money laundresses and so-called narco-reinas whose exploits are now celebrated alongside those of men. Their interviews show many female smugglers are attracted by easy money and a certain shady social status, though most were recruited by men: boyfriends, husbands or male relatives who are traffickers, users or indebted to cartels.
Some used “provocative attire” and blatantly flirted with male agents, inviting them to parties or asking for their phone numbers as a crossing technique, according to his research. Others hid drugs in wrapped gifts, diaper bags or coached kids to stage tantrums at checkpoints.
The three Monterrey sister smugglers and their friends had a regular route from Monterrey to Houston, court records show. Four of five confessed to regularly running cocaine here, including Teresa Baca Leos, 42, her friend Alba Rosa Peña Rejón, 47, and two of the three sisters: Natlleli and Mayra Sebastián Velázquez, ages 29 and 25.
The smugglers, who posed as shoppers and tourists, earned $1,000 to $3,000 each time, according to records and interviews. Only the youngest, 23-year-old Ericka Sebastián Velázquez claimed to be on her first trip.
Case records, some of which remain sealed, reveal nothing about who hired the women or who received their shipments in Houston. One of the women’s attorneys told the Chronicle it would be too dangerous for his client to speak publicly.
A party photo published in Monterrey newspaper El Norte showed the three sisters arm-in-arm, wearing formal gowns in 2008. A few months later, they’d been arrested and held without bond in the Webb County jail. A Laredo-based federal judge gave all five minimum sentences in late April — and added an unusual recommendation that the sisters be allowed to serve their sentences together.
Old cowboy knew a couple who routinely smuggled a brick or two in the bottom of a trash bag filled with dirty diapers.