They are known as “Las Barbies,” “Las Tinkerbells” and “Las Reinas.” But the images they evoke in the criminal underworld in Mexico are far from those of innocent dolls, bells and queens.
According to intelligence reports, the terms are used by drug-trafficking organizations for “mujeres sicarias” — hit women.
Then there are the “Radieras” and the “Halconeras.” They act as lookouts, manning radios at strategic points on the roads and who, like hawks, watch the activity of Mexico’s federal police, military and marines in order to alert the cartels.
The participation of women in cartels for kidnapping, extortion and murder is seen by some as females taking a wider role in general.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, described it as “a phenomenon in which women are really gaining spaces in different types of activities, not only productive or related to economic development.”
“Women’s participation has certainly grown — even in criminal activities,” said Correa-Cabrera, who studies Mexico-United States border issues, among other subjects. She is currently developing a project about violence on the Texas-Tamaulipas border, focused largely on organized crime.
“Drug trafficking like any other economic activity is now involving an increasing number of women. Globalization, technology and modernization have facilitated the incorporation of women into most productive activities and in nations’ development in general,” she said. “It is not weird, then, to see an increasing participation of women in drug trafficking activities – even as sicarias.”
Then there are “Las Panteras,” one of whose leaders was “La Comandante Bombon.”
Maria del Pilar Narro Lopez, alias “La Comandante Bombon,” was a Zeta when the organization was still the enforcement arm of the Cardenas-Guillen Gulf Cartel. She was detained in early 2009 in an operation that also resulted in the arrest of 10 men in Cancun, Quintana Roo, according to Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defense and Attorney General’s Office.
They were charged with weapons violations, organized crime and the killing of Gen. Mauro Tello Quiñonez, infantry Lt. Getulio Cesar Roman Zuñiga and a third man on Feb. 3, 2009.
The other detainees included the plaza boss Octavio Almanza Morales, alias “El Gori 4,” and Francisco Gerardo Velasco Delgado, alias “El Vikingo,” who was the director of public safety for the city of Benito Juarez in Quintana Roo, government records show. Other high-level officials also were charged.
Almanza also was charged in the killing of nine military troops in 2008 in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. They are in jail.
Narro Lopez was the head of a Zetas unit known as “Las Panteras,” said George W. Grayson, author of “Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?” and a longtime professor at the College of William and Mary. Mexico media reports identified her as the head of “Las Panteras” in Nuevo Leon.
“She was as cruel as any Zeta,” Grayson said.
“Comandante Bombon has the reputation of being anything but sweet as her name would apply,” he said.
“The Panteras were involved in getting key figures in compromising positions; a mayor or an army officer or a police comandante and to get them to agree to go east and not west tomorrow or that the police would not have a strong presence in a given area, say Reynosa or Matamoros,” he added.
“They had the skill and the authorization that if their interlocutor did not cooperate, to kill him,” Grayson said, adding that Las Panteras are in every state where the Zetas operate.
Phil Jordan, a former director of the El Paso Intelligence Center and formerly in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in Dallas, recalled that during his 30-year career, women played an important role within the cartels, “but that they were mostly used as couriers to transport drugs and money.”
“We are now seeing that they are taking on more of a male-role responsibility. The Colombians and Cubans have utilized this tactic, but now we are seeing the Mexican cartels increase the use of women in their organizations especially with the escalation of rivalries in Mexico,” he said.
Jordan said Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Loera’s Sinaloa Cartel also is believed to have sicarias. He said that intelligence sources point to sicaria movements in the states of San Luis Potosi and Tamaulipas, with women trained in kidnapping, extortion, torture and killing.
“The cartel bosses like to build them up as their reinas — but they are as deadly as their male counterparts,” Jordan said.
The Mexican government offered numerous rewards in early April for members of the Zetas organization, including 5 million pesos for information leading to the detention of Sarai Fabiola Diaz Arroyo, alias “La Muñeca.” “Muñeca” means “doll.”
She is among more than 80 men and women suspected of a connection to the kidnapping and slaying of nearly 200 people found in early April in graves in the La Joya ranching community near San Fernando, Tamps., about 80 miles south of Brownsville.
On June 2, the Attorney General’s Office, known as PGR, announced that Diaz Arroyo and three other women had been jailed in connection with the San Fernando case.
The others are Julieta Maricela Almaguer Reyes, Yesenia Vianey Lopez Romero and Claudia Veronica Fuentes Martinez, alias “La Popis,” meaning snobbish one.
Another woman, Maria Guadalupe Galvan Hernandez, also was among 16 San Fernando police officers that were detained. PGR said they were suspected of providing the Zetas with protection and with covering up the massacre.
Authorities in Mexico say that the victims were from Central America and Mexico and were traveling in passenger buses headed to the U.S.-Mexico border March 24-29 when they were kidnapped and killed, some for declining to join the Zetas.
Mexican officials have said that the massacre last year of 72 migrants, mostly from Central America, near San Fernando also was the work of the Zetas.
Jordan said that intelligence sources say that young, well-developed women are being recruited at university campuses. “In other words, the woman is a weapon, especially when they want to infiltrate or kill a rival that can succumb to the power of the woman,” Jordan said.
In a video widely circulated in Mexico and reportedly released by the Secretariat of Public Safety in mid-August last year, a member of “La Linea,” the enforcement arm of the Juarez Cartel, said that young, pretty women between 18 and 30 years old are recruited to bait and confuse rival groups. The suspect said that the women have specific instructions as lookouts, sicarias or extortionists.
On the other hand, a source close to the situation in Mexico said that most of the women they have seen acting as lookouts in small communities are poor.
“They need money. They have been left to fend for themselves,” the source observed, noting that many people have left their communities, making it difficult for those who stay to make a living.
“There’s no money coming in,” the source said. “They are threatened to work or die. To be an informant only means to survive.”
By some accounts, 40,000 people have died since 2006 when Mexico President Felipe Calderon launched the initiative against drug-trafficking organizations. According to the United States Congressional Research Service, the initiative has also led to violent succession struggles within the organizations themselves.
The ranks of the organizations have been decimated, a spokesman for Grupo Savant, a Washington-based intelligence firm, said.
“Ever since the cartels starting warring, both sides have had attrition problems. Shooters, killers, kidnappers, a lot have been killed,” the spokesman said, noting that the cartels have adopted extreme measures to staff their organizations.
“They are running out of fighters and are expanding into the female domain,” the spokesman suspects, adding that other methods have been to break into prisons to release their members or to force people to join their ranks by randomly pulling them off buses.
The Grupo Savant spokesman said there has been a “sporadic” presence of women within the cartels’ ranks in the last decade.
“But are there teams of sicarias? I don’t know, but have women been used (to kill)? Yes,” the spokesman said, pointing to a blog site that shows women torturing and killing men.
“It is a very slow evolution. It is a trend that is appearing, but it is not completely solidified as a pattern within the cartels,” the Grupo Savant spokesman observed.
Statements issued by federal government agencies regarding the detention of suspects bearing arms or transporting drugs increasingly include the detention of women.
Some women are recruited by the cartels, but many already within the ranks of criminal organizations are girlfriends, family members or relatives of the men in the cartels, which tend to be family-oriented.
According to intelligence sources, several women were arrested in Monterrey last year after trying to recruit men and women to the ranks.
Women have been used by criminal organizations to lure rivals, a Grupo Savant spokesman said. The spokesman said that one intelligence report reflects that a woman lured rivals to a nightclub in Acapulco in the mid-2000s. That resulted in five human heads being thrown onto the club’s dance floor.