By David Agren Special for USA TODAY
Eunice Ramirez, 19, modeled by day, working as a hostess at corporate functions, sporting events and political rallies.
On the side, the Ciudad Juárez native was alleged to have moonlighted in a kidnapping gang, luring unsuspecting men into abductions, until her Oct. 27 arrest.
The model-turned-accused kidnapper is but one example of the growing number of women swelling the ranks of criminal groups and participating in illegal activities in Mexico, where a crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime has claimed more than 28,000 lives since December 2006.
Ramirez's arrest highlights a shift in the relationship between women and criminal groups; women now participate in kidnappings, extortion and even hits. And their roles go beyond simply being mixed up with the wrong crowd — as was alleged to have happened with a raven-haired beauty queen, Laura Zuniga, who was arrested in December 2008 with a posse of cartel toughs. (She was released five weeks later.)
The National Women's Institute (Inmujeres) reported a 400% increase in the number of women imprisoned for federal crimes — mainly drugs and guns — over the past three years. Inmujeres put the number of women incarcerated for federal crimes at 4,292. The reasons for women meddling in organized crime remain a matter of dispute. Mexico City human rights lawyer Luis Jorge de la Pena estimates 40% of the females convicted for drug crimes were coerced by their boyfriends or husbands to either transport contraband between cities or smuggle drugs into prisons.
"Normally, there are cases of women knowing what their husbands have done, but they are convicted as accomplices for not denouncing them," he said.
Some women have ascended to the top echelons of criminal organizations, although such instances are rare. Sandra Avila Belran — "Queen of the Pacific" — gained notoriety for her luxurious lifestyle and role as an alleged key go-between for Mexican and Colombian cartels before her 2007 arrest.
Colombian model-turned-accused cartel leader Angie Sanclemente Valencia generated scandalous headlines for her May arrest in Argentina and allegations she recruited pretty girls to move drugs northward.
Women have assumed roles fighting crime, too: College student Marisol Valle, 20, assumed the top job in the violent border municipality of Praxedis G. Guerrero.
Criminal groups appear eager to recruit women.
The Public Security Secretariat released a video over the summer showing a presumed member of La Linea, the armed-wing of the Juárez Cartel, explaining how his gang recruited "good-looking girls to deceive their enemies."
Some experts say women are willing participants because they see the cartels as a way to lift themselves out of poverty in a country where good jobs are scarce.
Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, Chihuahua state human rights commission ombudsman in Ciudad Juárez, cited another reason: Cartels have increasingly been arming street gangs and using them to deal drugs and carry out hits. These local gangs often have female members.
Increased participation of women in criminal activities has brought increased reprisals.
Journalist Malcolm Beith, author of the book The Last Narco, about Mexico's drug war, said the trend began in 2008 when "a group of narcos decided to take it one step further, break the old rules (of not attacking women and children) and up the ante."
Eunice Ramirez's family suffered reprisals last month, when assailants tossed Molotov cocktails at her home, injuring her mother and badly burning three children under age 10 — including her daughter.
The assailants, self-identified as La Linea members, scrawled graffiti as the house burned, reading, "For pigs."