Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Women Play a Bigger Role in Mexico's Drug War

Monday, November 16, 2009 |

Addiction, the economy and the lure of living well have sucked many into the narcotics underworld. The trend threatens the foundations of Mexican society.

By Tracy Wilkinson

Guillermina Castro Lopez, in the Culiacan prison in Mexico's Sinaloa state, got 15 years for helping a trafficker smuggle 2 pounds of heroin. The mother of three had been promised $770 and a bus ticket home. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times / September 25, 2009)

Reporting from Culiacan, Mexico - In the story making the rounds here in Mexico's drug capital, the setting is a beauty parlor. A woman with wealth obtained legally openly criticizes a younger patron who is married to a trafficker. The "narco-wife" orders the hairdresser to shave the first woman's head. Terrified, the hairdresser complies.

Urban legend or real? It almost doesn't matter; it's the sort of widely repeated account that both intimidates and titillates. And it highlights a disturbing trend: As drug violence seeps deeper into Mexican society, women are taking a more hands-on role.

In growing numbers, they are being recruited into the ranks of drug smugglers, dealers and foot soldiers. And in growing numbers, they are being jailed, and killed, for their efforts.

Here in Sinaloa, the nation's oldest drug-producing region and home to its most powerful cartel, the wives of drug lords were long viewed as trophies with rhinestone-studded fingernails and endless surgical enhancements.

Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times / September 25, 2009

An inmate at the Culiacan prison hangs laundry in a cellblock hallway. Nearly a quarter of the prisoners at the facility are female, and most are serving time for crimes related to drug trafficking, an official said.

Now wives -- and mothers and daughters -- are being used by male traffickers because women can more easily pass through the military checkpoints that have popped up along many drug-transport routes.

As Mexico has become a nation that also consumes drugs, women have become addicts, which sucks them into the narcotics underworld.

Mexico's worst economic crisis since World War II is also helping to fuel the trend; for desperate women, dealing and smuggling are often seen as a more "dignified" job than prostitution, said Pedro Cardenas, a Sinaloa state public security official in charge of prisons.

Drug violence that preys on women, in a patriarchal, macho society such as that of Sinaloa, has become an urgent problem in the last year, which has seen more killings than ever before, said Margarita Urias, head of the Sinaloa Institute for Women.

The trend could ultimately pose a threat to the stability of family structures in Mexico, a country where the woman is usually the glue holding a family together.

"It is a social cancer contaminating women who weren't touched before," Urias said.

"When we are so vulnerable, how do we educate and bring up our children? When insecurity overwhelms us, how do we inject values into our homes? How can we remain immune?"

He's free, she's not

Veronica Vasquez curses her drug-smuggling husband.

He wasn't at home the night the army came calling. She didn't have time to dispose of the bags of cocaine he had hidden in the bedroom. Now she's serving five years in the crowded prison in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, and he's still free.

"I am paying for his crime," said Vasquez, 32. "But I knew what he was doing."

Vasquez, who has two children, lost not just her freedom but all the trappings of the good life she enjoyed. The jewelry and designer handbags and fancy sunglasses, all within easy grasp without really having to work very hard.

"It is all gone," she said. As for her husband: "He is dead to me."

Carmen Elizalde was caught transporting 220 pounds of cocaine from Panama to Mexico. Nabbed on the Honduran border with Guatemala and sentenced to 18 years in prison, she says the deal was her husband's doing. She'd been duped, she said, into going along on what he portrayed as a vacation in Panama. But she didn't ask many questions either.

"Truth is, I didn't want to examine his activities," said Elizalde, 49, a mother of two with a smooth, plump face and perfectly arched eyebrows. "He was giving us a good life, and I didn't care where the money came from."

Mirna Cartagena blames no one but herself. She wanted the quick, easy money. For $1,000, all she had to do was put about 7 pounds of cocaine in her suitcase and board a bus from Culiacan to Mexicali, a city that sits on the border with California. Police pulled her from the bus about halfway along the route, and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

"It was a matter of necessity and ignorance, of not thinking of alternatives," Cartagena, 31, said with a toss of her long, curly hair, peering from behind sunglasses.

Nearly a quarter of the inmates in the Culiacan prison are female; nationally, it's 5%. The most dramatic change is the type of conviction. A decade ago, the vast majority of women in prison were there for theft or "crimes of passion," such as the killing of a spouse or lover.

Today the statistics have been turned upside down: The majority are incarcerated for crimes related to drug trafficking, Cardenas said, and 80% of first-time inmates are addicts or users.

In the bloody battles to dominate the drug trade, the traditional codes among traffickers that left families untouched have largely broken down. Being a narco-wife is not the armor it once was.

Golden sandals

Maria Jose Gonzalez seemed to have everything going for her. Her curvaceous looks won the crown at the Sun Festival beauty pageant. She had a budding career as a singer with hopes of a recording deal. And she must have had some smarts too, because she had studied law.

The 22-year-old's body was found dumped along a road on the southern edge of Culiacan last spring, near a sign that warns, "Don't throw trash." Nearby was the body of her husband, Omar Antonio Avila, a used-car salesman. She had been shot in the head; he was blindfolded and his hands handcuffed behind his back. Her eyes were open, staring skyward. She wore golden sandals.

The road where they were discovered is frequently used to dump the murder victims that haunt Culiacan. The road meanders into bushy countryside, winding around the back wall of an affluent residential community with its own man-made lake popular with people on jet skis. Wooden crosses and tiny shrines mark where bodies have appeared. The area is known as La Primavera. Springtime.

Authorities suspect that Gonzalez and her husband got mixed up with the Sinaloa cartel, members of which may have blamed them for the loss of 9 tons of marijuana in an army raid shortly before the couple were slain.

Zulema Hernandez ended up in prison on armed-robbery charges. There she met Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, who was serving out a sentence until he famously escaped in 2001 by bribing guards and hiding in a bundle of outgoing laundry.

While the two were doing time in the Puente Grande maximum-security prison outside Guadalajara, Hernandez, in her early 20s, became Guzman's mistress.

"After the first time, he sent to my cell a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of whiskey," Hernandez told Mexican author Julio Scherer for a book he wrote on prisons. "I was his queen."

She told another reporter in 2002 that she became pregnant by El Chapo but miscarried after being beaten by guards.

By the time she was released in 2003, Hernandez had apparently picked up some of her lover's tricks of the trade: She was arrested less than a year later with 2 tons of cocaine.

Lawyers supplied by El Chapo helped her file a peculiarly Mexican injunction used to stop many a prosecution, and she was free again in 2006. She quickly became the Sinaloa cartel's agent in Mexico City, authorities said, transporting cocaine into the capital's neighborhoods -- relatively new terrain for the organization.

Last December, her body was found in the trunk of a car outside Mexico City. She had been shot in the head. Carved into her breasts, stomach and buttocks was the letter Z, symbol of the notorious gang of hit men called the Zetas, archenemies of El Chapo. She was 35.

A year earlier, the fugitive Guzman had married his third wife the day she turned 18: Emma Coronel, another beauty pageant winner, who is one-third her husband's age. At one point, she was reportedly seen around Culiacan, frequenting the hair and nail salons that cater to narco-wives and other young women who emulate the style: glamorous 'dos and fingernails longer than toes, bejeweled or painted with elaborate designs or pictures of cartoon characters. More recently, she was said to be in hiding.

On average in Sinaloa this year, a woman was killed every week in what authorities believe to be gangland hits.

Two women driving on a state highway last month were intercepted by two carloads of gunmen and pulled from their vehicle as their horrified children watched. Their bullet-scarred bodies, heads wrapped in plastic bags, were found a few hours later. One was believed to be a wife of one of the Sinaloa cartel's top kingpins, Victor Emilio Cazares.

The allure persists

Despite the risks, the drug world life continues to appeal to a subset of young women, generating its own lore, especially here in Sinaloa.

Two days before Christmas, federal police arrested Miss Sinaloa, the state's reigning beauty queen, and seven men, all of whom were paraded before television cameras and accused of trafficking cocaine. A cache of high-powered weapons and tens of thousands of dollars were seized from their vehicle.

Laura Zuñiga, 23, was never charged and went free after 38 days under a form of house arrest. Tagged "Miss Narco" by the Mexican media, Zuñiga acknowledged that her boyfriend was the brother of a big trafficker, but she said her beau was not involved in the business, although she wasn't sure what he did for a living.

She was stripped of a title she had won in an international contest. But she remains Miss Sinaloa.

For many women, joining this life is not a matter of choice. They are press-ganged, pushed by parents seeking wealth and influence, or don't know what they're getting into, said Urias, the women's institute official. And escape is rarely an option.

A few women have managed to flee drug-trafficking husbands, and have taken refuge in a shelter whose location is a tightly held secret.

Teresita tried for four years to get away from a husband who beat her, cheated on her and partied endlessly with his drug-dealing friends.

"He was high all the time," she said in an interview at the shelter. The Times agreed not to publish her last name.

She went to the police and the courts, but no one helped. After one particularly bad beating, she gathered up her two children and moved in with her sister.

But her husband followed her, threatened to burn the house down and shot out the outside lights. The goons who worked with him menaced Teresita and her family.

Teresita, a 28-year-old brunet with large, almond-shaped eyes, had known her husband since she was 16. Her sister had married his brother. But drugs and the business had changed him.

She finally became convinced that he would kill her and kidnap the children and found her way to the agency that runs the shelter. There she has remained with her children, trying to learn how to use a computer and other skills that will help her rebuild her life.

But most of the women who have left narco-husbands have to be transferred out of the state and sometimes out of the country to really be safe.

Teresita has a simple wish: "I just want to be in a place where I am not afraid to walk outside."

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