|Sandra Ávila Beltrán, 18 years old and deeply in love with Javier Caro, who would later be murdered.|
"despite the horrendous bloodshed and estimated more than 100,000 deaths in Mexico over the past decade’s drug wars, she made one thing clear: she doesn’t feel any guilt."
nside the front door of Sandra Ávila Beltrán’s home is an altar and lit candles that form a crowded shrine to her first husband (riddled by gunfire), her second husband (stabbed through the heart) and her brother (tortured to death). All were murdered during Mexico’s ongoing cocaine wars.
Ávila is the stuff legends are made of – one of the few women with access to the highest levels of cartel life. She has lived, worked and loved inside the upper echelons of the Mexican drug world since the late 1970s. At the height of her career, she showed a propensity to carry suitcases with millions of dollars in crisp $100 bills.
Her status led her to become known as “The Queen of the Pacific”, in honor of her alleged prowess organizing a fleet of tuna boats laden with 10 tons of cocaine each as they navigated north from Mexico’s Pacific coast towards the world’s number one cocaine market: the United States.
Ávila has spent the last seven years in prison for money laundering, including two years in solitary confinement. Now free, she gave an exclusive interview, her first in nearly a decade, from her home near Guadalajara, in which she lashed out at Mexican politicians’ corruption, mocked the futility of drug prohibition and celebrated the escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Her three-decade rise to power has provided her with a front-row view of private jets, clandestine plastic surgery operations to disguise identity, murderous shootouts at VIP parties and one non-stop constant: massive bribes to Mexican public officials. “The most I ever heard about was a $100m [bribe] to a Mexican president,” Ávila said. “A million dollars is nothing. I have seen one [politician] look into the bag to see if it was there. He knew everything.”
|Beltran when released from US custody|
Although she spoke freely for three hours, Ávila resolutely refused to see anything evil in the carnage of the drug violence in Mexico, blithely comparing it to Prohibition-era violence in the US. In her world, drugs were everywhere, and illegal drug use a consumer not moral choice. The tens of thousands of Mexicans killed by armed drug gangs includes many of her inner circle yet she refused to criticize the industry, instead seeking to portray violence as a result of either Mexican government-sponsored terrorism or prohibition policies — not the well documented and undeniable savagery regularly used by Mexican drug gangs.
Ávila also refused to answer certain questions about her precise role in the cocaine trade, coyly forgetting the exact number of bodyguards in her personal detachment, and describing extremely large cash payments made to her as “presents”. And despite the horrendous bloodshed and estimated more than 100,000 deaths in Mexico over the past decade’s drug wars, she made one thing clear: she doesn’t feel any guilt.
Ávila was born into narco royalty. As a child, she lived in opulence. She was offered private tuition, piano and dance lessons and frequent trips to SeaWorld and Disneyland. Her father, Alfonso Ávila Quintero, is related to the founder of the Guadalajara cartel. Her family’s lifestyle also included piles of money. She spent so many hours counting cash as a child that she could later swipe a clutch of bills and – just like a cocktail party trick – precisely calculate their value.
Around the age of 13, she witnessed her first shootout. “People walked the streets with pistols at the waist with musicians walking and playing behind them,” she said. “At dawn you heard the music, the shootouts, it was when they killed the people.”
While her childhood friends soon rose to become leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, young Sandra explored other routes, taking her verve and enrolling in journalism classes as a feisty 17 year old. But three years into communication studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, a jealous boyfriend kidnapped her. He was a powerful young man closely tied to the cartels. Within months she had left town, ending her hopes of a career as an investigative reporter.
Instead, Sandra Ávila entered the drug underworld. It didn’t hurt that she was a raucous car driver, a master horseback rider, and a fabled sharpshooter. She also, she said, made the best of her flirting skills.
“I remember a suitor who bought me a pickup truck and left it at my friend’s house with flowers and a note,” she said. “The note said, ‘spend the money on a trip that you want’ and there was an envelope.” It held $100,000. By the age of 21, she was privately meeting with the drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, also known as El Señor de los Cielos (Lord of the Skies).
Her life became full-time cartel. An astute learner, she rose fast through the ranks and was coveted by men every step of the way.
However, Ávila made a point to never use cocaine herself. “If you do it, the men think you are just another disposable woman, you won’t be respected,” she said.
Women in this world, she explained, are abused, discarded, and tossed out with little more concern than a child abandoning a Barbie doll. Narco leaders would keep a harem of up to 10 women and this sexual freedom, she emphasized, does not extend to their female counterparts. Women, she said, are looked at as objects, adornments or a necessity but “never as a fighting being, or a person made of triumphs and achievements”.
Gaining respect was paramount to her. Ávila didn’t want to be just invited to the party, she was determined to become the Queen of Cocaine. And in less than 10 years, her coronation was complete.
She became friendly with “El Chapo” Guzmán, dated a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel, commanded a 30-car flotilla and won shooting competitions with the head bodyguard to Rafael Caro Quintero, founder of the Guadalajara cartel.
For her son’s 15th birthday, she gave him an Hummer and, later, a $40,000 allowance every few months. From her neck hung a gold pendant in the form of Tutankhamun with 83 rubies, 228 diamonds and 189 sapphires. Photos of her party life resemble an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians except when she scanned the photos every few years, another one of the characters had been murdered.
She, however, seemed invincible.