The names of some of Mexico’s most infamous drug lords are well-known: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Rafael Caro Quintero. Besides their profession and location, they have one other thing in common – they are all men. But those following the evolution of cartels in the country are noticing a demographic shift.
One headline from the Houston Chronicle summarizes it: “Ruthless, but charming female members are taking over Mexico’s drug cartels”.
Nathan Jones is professor at Sam Houston State University and author of the book “Mexico’s Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction“.
The women’s rise to power within the cartel world has been sensationalized, Jones says. Cartel women have been posting photos to social media – pictures showing them scantily clad and holding what appear to be automatic rifles or posing with chained-up tigers.
But some of the level of female involvement in drug cartels is based on rumors, Jones says.
For example, actress Claudia Ochoa Felix, often referred to as the Kim Kardashian of Mexican drug trafficking, denies any involvement in cartel life. She’s allegedly the head of “Los Ántrax,” the assassin branch of the Sinaloa Cartel.
“In some ways I think this is the media taking an opportunity to sell copy because they know that sex sells,” Jones says.
But in other cases, it’s something else, Jones says.
“Organized crime in Mexico has diversified beyond drug trafficking into local extortion, into oil theft, many other criminal activities,” he says. “There’s a lot more people involved in these criminal activities. That has a democratizing effect and we’ve already seen some women play some impressive roles as ruthless hit women … by the same token, it’s still very male-dominated.”
Women in the drug trafficking world are oftentimes abused and raped, Jones says. It’s a very clever, often ruthless woman who rise to the top and are able to survive.
One of the biggest examples of this is Sandra Ávila Beltrán, dubbed “La Reyna del Pacifico” in the narco corrido “Fiesta en la sierra” by Los Tucanes de Tijuana – a song that outed her as a part of the drug world. She had grown up attached to the Guadalajara cartel, which the modern-day Sinaloa cartel came out of, Jones says. She had a three-decade career at the upper echelons of Mexican drug trafficking, before her arrest. After almost a decade spent in prison on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, she was released in 2015.
It’s possible that Mexican law enforcement’s reaction to drug cartels has played a role in more women taking front jobs in cartels, Jones says.
“Law enforcement in Mexico – we’ve really been focused on the ‘Kingpin Strategy’,” he says.
Police take out the cartel kingpins. That leaves organizations’ lieutenants to fight amongst themselves, then law enforcement goes after the lieutenants.
“You get these smaller, more criminal groups that become profit-starved and they have to engage in more criminal activities,” Jones says. “You take out the husband and the wife knows about all of his operations. Oftentimes criminal groups, particularly in drug-trafficking – the husband is arrested, the wife will continue to run operations.”
Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.