Women assume bigger roles in Mexico’s drug cartels

MEXICO CITY, Apr. 10, 2011/ Troy Media/ – The Queen of the South (La Reina del Sur) debuted on Mexican television this month, bringing a fictional depiction of Mexico’s drug business to the small screen in telenovela form. It once again highlights the expanding role of women in an illegal enterprise once considered the domain of men.

The 12-week telenovela (soap opera) – developed by U.S. Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo and based on the novel of the same name – depicts the rise of fictional heroine Teresa Mendoza from being the naïve, small-town girlfriend of a slain drug runner to eventually overseeing a massive smuggling empire.

The series debuts as drug violence in Mexico has escalated, having claimed more than 35,000 lives over the past four years. It is also a time when women are becoming ever more involved in the drug business – whether by coercion from their boyfriends and husbands or the same greed and ambition driving many of their male counterparts. Women are also increasingly suffering reprisals for the actions of their boyfriends or spouses, as the old rules of not attacking the wives and children of adversaries have been abandoned by a new generation of “narcos.”

‘Why not’ lead cartels?

Although men dominate the upper echelons of organized crime, some women have reached senior positions, too. With more women joining the ranks of organized crime and with changing social values and gender roles- something reflected in the widely watched telenovelas – author and social commentator Guadalupe Loaeza foresees more women rising through the ranks of organized crime.

“Soon, they’re going become the heads of cartels. Why not?” she asked.

Sandra Avila Beltran, the Queen of the Pacific, allegedly became a key liaison between Mexican and Colombian cartels until her arrest in 2007, prosecutors say. A judge threw out drug charges against her in December, but she remains locked up pending an extradition request. Even though incarcerated, it was alleged this year she received Botox injections while behind bars.

Colombian model Angie Sanclemente Valencia was detained in Argentina in May 2010 for allegedly leading a gang that police say hired good-looking girls to transport drugs northward to Mexico and the United States.

Such cases of women reaching the upper echelons of organized crime are considered rare, but have generated headlines for such incidents as the arrests of women – often South American models or beauty queens – romantically linked to the cartel bosses.

Alleged trafficker Jose Jorge Balderas, aka “El JJ,” was the main suspect in the shooting of Paraguayan footballer Salvador Cabañas in a Mexico City bar. But when police busted him in January, his Colombian girlfriend, model and beauty queen Juliana Sossa Toro, stole much of the attention. Sossa was featured in a series of swimwear photos and videos posted online. She also indiscreetly posted her Mexico City neighbourhood on Facebook, something detected by the authorities.

Girlfriends go public

Sossa wasn’t the first “narco” girlfriend (or “narconovia”) to surface in Mexico. Silvia Irabien, past winner of the Mexican version of Big Brother, revealed in 2010 she had El JJ’s child, but that he “disappeared” upon learning she was pregnant. Police arrested Colombian model Juliana Lopez Aguirre in November 2010 with her boyfriend, cartel leader Harold Mauricio Poveda. Poveda, known as “The Rabbit,” reputedly threw a 2008 birthday bash for her in Mexico City featuring plenty of gold, caged lions, tigers and panthers and dozens of prostitutes, Mexican media reported.
Beauty queen Laura Zuñiga, winner of the Miss Sinaloa title – representing a state notorious for drug trafficking and famed for pretty girls – was arrested in December 2008 with her boyfriend, an accused cartel member, while riding in a vehicle full of cash and weapons. She was released a month later, saying she knew nothing of her boyfriend’s work.

Those kinds of explanations fail to wash with some observers.

“By dating these guys, they’re basically endorsing the violence,” says journalist Malcolm Beith, author of The Last Narco, a book on Mexico’s drug war.

“They may not know exactly what their boyfriend does in terms of killing, but they know he’s associated with a trade that leaves people dead.”

The federal government reported that the number of women convicted to federal crimes over the past three years has increased fourfold – mostly for guns and drugs. The National Women’s Institute (Inmujeres) launched a campaign warning, “Love can cost you dearly,” an admonishment for women to avoid their partners’ illegal activities.

Inmujeres and some groups that work with female prisoners say most these women are convicted for trying to smuggle drugs into prisons (often concealing the merchandise in their bodies) and carrying drugs through military checkpoints.

“Most of the women in prison are there because of what their boyfriends wanted them to do,” said Gustavo Hernandez, director of the Catholic Church’s prison outreach in northeastern Mexico.

Other observers express different opinions for a trend they say will only grow larger.

Ambition the driver

Ambition and money motivates many women to join organized crime, along with changes in social values and the role of women in a “machista society,” Loaeza says. She points to the nightly “telenovelas” as an indication.

“The telenovela heroines increasingly look like El JJ’s model,” she said. In the past, “They were always gorgeous, but not daring.”

“Now they’re ‘machas,’ very liberal. They star increasingly in riskier roles.”

David Agren is a Calgary journalist living in Mexico who writes frequently on the crime scene there.

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