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Roles of Women in Organized Crime


This section will discuss the main roles that women play in drug trafficking, human trafficking and migrant smuggling, with a focus on identifying the full spectrum of female criminal activity in these economies, from subordinate to leadership roles.

As has been discussed, while gender regulates a hierarchical difference in traditional male and female roles, women have taken on a wide range of roles within criminal economies, including positions of power, which tend to go unnoticed among stories of women as “victims” or “passive participants.”

Drug Trafficking

During the past 30 years, drug trafficking, especially the international cocaine trade, has relied on thousands of people working at different stages of production, transportation and sales. In most cases, the division of labor between men and women show inequalities of power derived from gender arrangements. However, there are important exceptions that merit exploration.

For clarity, it might be better to divide the cocaine trade into its three principal components: production, international transport and retail, and look at the role of women in each link of the chain.

*This article is part of an investigation by InSight Crime and Universidad del Rosario’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory into the complexity of female roles inside organized crime, questioning the tendency to present women only as victims, or in some cases, as victimizers. Download the complete “Women and Organized Crime in Latin America: Beyond Victims and Victimizers” report here

Day Laborers and Coca Pickers

In general women in the countryside, especially at harvest time, have been employed as day laborers. Usually, coca pickers are men, while women perform domestic service tasks, although some do work as coca pickers as well. According to Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz – FIP), the women who work as day laborers or coca pickers then must carry out domestic tasks at home, implying a double workday.


When coca undergoes chemical processing in laboratories, women are brought in to cook for the workers since most of these facilities are located in remote areas. The women who work as cooks in large laboratories controlled by armed groups receive better pay, but are also subject to rules of conduct and face the risks associated with this trade, either when working in the facilities or traveling there.


Female coca growers, for the most part, tend a family plot. They are also involved in the harvesting of coca leaves and even the production of cocaine paste. In some cases, they are also the ones who sell the cocaine base. At the time of harvest, they may also be responsible for coordinating the work of the pickers, preparing food and paying them their wages. Women farmers are usually in charge of hiring pickers and making proper economic arrangements.

Drug Mules

These women transport drugs, making them the most vulnerable link within the drug trafficking chain. Griselda Blanco, “The Godmother of Cocaine,” was a major figure in launching the idea of using “mules” to transport marijuana and cocaine to the US market and constantly used this method to traffic drugs.

Women who serve as “drug mules” or are involved in micro-trafficking often take on these low-paid, dangerous jobs because of their need for money. Drug addiction and relationships with a partner or family member who is involved in drug trafficking can also draw them into the underworld.

Eyes and Ears / Falcons

Women also often serve as lookouts, known as falcons, who report on the movement of people, rival gang members and police. Women are particularly useful in this role because they are often overlooked by authorities. These women can also be called on to perform other basic functions, such as cooking for the group.


Women who are tasked with overseeing the crystallization process of coca paste are often recruited for their “precision,” and they often have an advantage over their male counterparts in this respect. As confirmed by the FIP, in this role women must maintain ties and communication with criminal groups. Women in this position can also supervise the production of cocaine, while the work is carried out by others.


According to a briefing paper by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), more and more women are entering the drug trafficking world by becoming microtraffickers, drug transporters (including inside prisons) or even mules. These women usually have access to greater income than they would get in many formal jobs, while remaining at high risk of severe prison time in case of arrest. These microtraffickers only have marginal chances of rising to leadership, as they are easily replaceable, face a high risk of arrest and have almost no impact on the operation of the drug trafficking business.

Trophy Wives

Beyond being objectified as “trophies,” these women occupy different roles in the drug trafficking chain, such as transporting drugs or providing cover for money laundering. Illustrating the alternative roles the wives and partners of drug traffickers can play are Gabriela Fernández, a Venezuelan beauty queen who was jailed for her ties to Colombian drug trafficker Daniel Barrera, alias “El Loco,” and Martha Lucía Echeverry, the wife of Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela who oversaw certain operations and real estate assets for the Cali Cartel leader.

Women tied to drug bosses can also become players in the trade. After the capture of Héctor Beltrán Leyva, leader of the Beltrán Leyva Organization, his beauty queen wife, Clara Elena Laborín, took over his drug trafficking business. “La Doña,” as she was known, was responsible for maintaining the group’s cohesion and power in the absence of her husband, while also making alliances with other organized crime groups. Colombian model Angie Sanclemente was sentenced to six years in prison for her role in trafficking cocaine. She recruited attractive women to travel to Europe with cocaine shipments, paying them $5,000. She was arrested in Buenos Aires in 2010.

Logistics Coordination

Within drug trafficking organizations, women also perform jobs requiring a higher level of professionalization, such as keeping track of earnings, organizing the logistics of drug shipments and taking care of money laundering. These jobs require high levels of reliability and trust, so women who work in these logistical roles have more opportunities to develop leadership capabilities.

Sandra Ávila Beltrán, known as “The Queen of the Pacific,” is an example of this. She directed cocaine shipments from Colombia to Mexico for the Sinaloa Cartel, tracked the group’s finances, established new connections with potential buyers or suppliers, and laundered the money of Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo,” one of the cartel’s top leaders.

Migrant Smuggling

Migrant smuggling is the movement of people across borders -- either by land, sea or air -- for financial benefit.

Large flows of migrants in Latin America make this a particularly lucrative criminal economy. Due to their geographical location, Colombia and Panama see numerous groups of migrants head northward to the United States. Trafficking routes cross all of Colombia, often beginning from Ipiales on the border with Ecuador to Turbo in the region of Urabá on the border with Panama. From there, traffickers or “coyotes” can arrange passage to Panama by boat or send migrants on the perilous jungle trek across the Darién Gap. This crossing can cost between $7,000 and $20,000, depending on the migrant’s country of origin.

Women play various roles within the trafficking of undocumented migrants through various countries and borders across Latin America.

Logistics Coordination

Similarly to drug trafficking, migrant smuggling requires logistical support, which women often provide. They are responsible for organizing lodging and food for illegal migrants, as well as coordinating routes and departure times with smugglers. These roles remain subordinate in nature.

Ludis María Rivera González, alias “The Godmother,” played this role within an organization led by “Mamá África” in Chocó. Another example was a woman identified as “La Reina,” who was in charge of housing undocumented migrants in Ipiales, Nariño, before they continued their journey north.

Coyotes / Traffickers

While few instances have been seen, there are women who also work as coyotes in these migrant smuggling networks, physically accompanying the transport of migrants from one country to another.


A woman known as “Mamá África” was arrested in March 2019 for leading a migrant trafficking network after a boat carrying 27 people wrecked off the coast of Chocó, Colombia. The smuggling network transported migrants from Congo, Eritrea, Cuba and Haiti, among other countries, to Panama. The migrants paid $150 to $350 for the voyage, and even more to reach destinations farther north.

A Nicaraguan woman, operating under the same “Mamá África” name, was captured in a joint operation between Panama and Costa Rica in July 2019. She is accused of leading a migrant trafficking network that moved approximately 250 migrants from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean to Europe and the United States.

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is one of the most lucrative criminal economies in the world, moving people internationally or domestically in order to exploit them sexually or force them to work for little or no wages, including as beggars or domestic servants.

The majority of victims of human trafficking are women and children. However, according to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018 by the United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime (UNODC), women also represent just over a third of those arrested for this crime in the Americas. This makes it important to understand the roles women play within human trafficking rings in the region.


There are women in trafficking networks who are exclusively dedicated to recruitment, often targeting vulnerable, younger victims. The forms of recruitment they use are diverse but often include the promise of employment and travel opportunities. Recruitment happens often within their community or through companies that pose as modeling agencies.

These women are often in charge of procuring travel documents and “preparing” the victims before they are sent to other places where they will eventually be exploited.

Colombian Andrea Vélez used a modeling agency in Mexico City to recruit women who were later sexually exploited by the Sinaloa Cartel. Another woman known as “La Madame del Amazonas,” or “La Tigresa,” was accused of leading a human trafficking network along the Colombia, Peru and Brazil borders. According to authorities, she was in charge of transporting women and girls from Puerto Nariño, Colombia, to Iquitos and Pucallpa in Peru, where they were sexually exploited for money.

In other cases, victims are coerced or encouraged to become recruiters themselves in order to obtain their freedom.This creates a vicious circle where some female victims become part of the human trafficking chain.


Ringleaders, or “madames,” usually recruit and care for women within human trafficking and sex trafficking networks, as well as coordinate and maintain relationships with clients. These women often play mid-ranking roles within a criminal structure. Some of these women have taken on leadership roles, especially when it comes to the exploitation and sexual slavery of women. This was the case of Colombian Liliana Campos, alias “La Madame,” who was jailed on charges of human trafficking in Colombia and other countries. She was also in charge of logistics for the trafficking ring, as well as maintaining the list of contacts and clients.

Another example is that of the Black Widows (Las Viudas Negras) in El Salvador, a group that forced young women to marry men who were later killed. The women then were forced to claim the pension money or life insurance belonging to their murdered husbands.

Case Study 1 - Human Smuggling in Colombia: Between Victims and Victimizers

The role women play in organized crime constantly challenges the pre-conceived ideas that exist about the agency they have within criminal groups or economies. Beyond being victims of crime, women operate on the other side of the spectrum, wielding power over others through violence and other means. Sexual trafficking only adds to this complexity, since women can be victims, recruiters and leaders of their own human trafficking and sexual exploitation networks.

As shown in various reports and academic papers, there is a tendency to view the role of women as either as victims or victimizers. However, these roles are not mutually exclusive. These definitions overlap with each other in gray areas where women who are victims later become victimizers or are prepared to do so in the future.

The 2012 UNODC Global Trafficking in Persons Report stated that women make up 42 percent of convictions for human trafficking in the Americas. This reflects how women have taken on more importance in criminal organizations dedicated to human trafficking, especially in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. A 2006 Europol report stated that at least 57 percent of human trafficking recruiters were women.

From early 2018 until October 2019, according to figures from Colombia's Attorney General’s Office, authorities registered around 222 women as victims of trafficking. In addition to that, according to figures from the Interior Ministry, 2019 saw 108 cases, an increase of 74 percent compared to the 62 cases presented in 2013.

This national increase has been linked to several causes, including the mass arrival of Venezuelan migrants seeking economic opportunities in Colombia. A spike in cases of human trafficking and migrant smuggling has been seen along the Colombia-Venezuela border, including in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander and in the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Zulia. A 2018 report from the National Trafficking Observatory of Colombia’s Interior Ministry highlighted that cases involving Venezuelan women had gone from two in 2015 to five in 2017. However, due to underreporting, the number of cases is likely much higher.

Along remote trails known as "trochas" between Colombia and Venezuela, women face different threats, especially forced recruitment by trafficking networks. In recent years, criminal groups in these areas have forced women and children to join their ranks under threat of leaving them at the mercy of rival gangs. Colombian mafias, such as the Urabeños and Rastrojos, maintain control of prostitution networks that exploit minors in urban centers, such as Puerto Santander.

Pablo Barrera, a legal advisor to Cúcuta’s secretariat of the interior and a member of the municipal committee to fight human trafficking, said it has been impossible to quantify the exact number of women coming into the border city, either voluntarily or through trafficking, but the numbers have been increasing. Some officials claim to be aware of the alarming number of trafficking cases but InSight Crime has been able to verify that these same officials are not properly registering all the information about said cases.

The lines between sexual exploitation through human trafficking and voluntary prostitution are difficult to separate. Not all Venezuelan women working in prostitution in Colombia were forced to do so. Some women make the decision to willingly engage in these activities as a means to support themselves. According to ASMUBULI, an association helping sex workers in Colombia, about 6,500 Venezuelan women have chosen to engage in prostitution since arriving in Colombia. In Cúcuta, public officials also say that “approximately 90 percent of women who currently work in prostitution ... are Venezuelan.”

“Nobody does this for fun, we do it because we have to,” said Christina, 24, who crossed over into Colombia in mid-2019. As the days passed after her arrival, Christina’s savings ran out and she was convinced by a friend to find work in a bar.

She began selling alcohol in the evenings to customers but quickly realized she could not make enough money that way. The owner of the bar then suggested more money could be made by sleeping with customers. While women involved in prostitution can be found throughout the city, Christina and other women said that parks, especially Santander Park, just outside Cúcuta's town hall, have become hotspots for the trade.

Criminal gangs run the prostitution networks in the parks, extorting women. These same gangs extort merchants and even drug transporters, and have deep roots in Cúcuta and other parts of the department of Norte de Santander.

This highlights the thin line between trafficking and prostitution that, in cities like Cúcuta, becomes increasingly blurred. The recruitment of women through known associates offering job opportunities is one of the most common operational methods of human traffickers.

It is crucial to deepen understanding of women’s roles as both victims and perpetrators of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. According to Rose Broad from the University of Manchester, in Europe, there still has not been a successful approach to criminal justice that has allowed for the full and layered understanding of how women participate in these networks. This has only further propagated the misconception that women are either victims or victimizers. The same situation has happened in Colombia.

The lack of knowledge about the roles of women within organized crime has affected criminal justice in Colombia. According to research conducted by the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá, many female participants do not pose a threat to broader citizen security, specifically because they are working at a comparatively low level of the criminal chain.

In addition, criminal justice systems mostly view men as de facto leaders of such criminal dynamics. This leads to the possibility that women actively participating in higher positions is ignored, since most women captured are at the lowest rungs on the ladder. As a result, trafficking cases have tended to favor the portrayal of an “ideal victim,” namely weak and naive women who need to be rescued from criminal patriarchal figures.

This implies the view that women aggressors are aberrant, which does not correspond to the “natural” behavior of women in violent contexts.

This criminal economy also shows the various forms that violence can take. In trafficking networks, women often act as organizers: they plan strategically, lead the recruitment and exploitation of victims, or have control of finances. In many cases the victims themselves become involved in these networks, entering a gray area where their roles as victim and victimizer overlap. At this stage, if the women involved receive inadequate support from authorities, they run the risk of becoming victims once again. The law does not recognize the duality of the roles people can play within a trafficking ring, and women risk being treated as criminals, and their status as victims altogether cast aside.

Madames, women who lead or manage prostitution networks, have also exercised power. In Colombia, for example, Liliana Campos, better known in Cartagena as "La Madame,” managed much of the sex trade along Cartagena’s beaches. Authorities accused her of having sexually exploited 250 Colombian and Venezuelan girls and women. Campos ran her network behind the façade of a company known as “Cartagena Fantasy Services S.A.S.,” which party services to foreigners at restaurants, boats and hotels.

According to an investigation by Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office, Campos solicited girls and women with promises of cash and other luxuries, and then trained them on how to cater to her foreign clients.

The sex workers’ earnings depended on the time spent with clients: $200 for three hours, $300 for six hours, $400 for 12 hours, and $600 for 24-hour VIP service. Campos made triple what the girls earned.

Starting from Cartagena’s popular tourism industry, “La Madame” expanded into the Bahamas, Miami, Panama and Mexico, among others. Through this network, she was able to obtain passports for the women and gave them stipends in US dollars for their time abroad. However, she then cashed in debts with sex work as payment. In such human trafficking networks, many women help to capture or recruit victims, which generally carries a greater risk of being captured by the authorities. Some women, such as Campos, managed to lead their own networks while distancing themselves from these risks.

*This article is part of an investigation by InSight Crime and Universidad del Rosario’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory into the complexity of female roles inside organized crime, questioning the tendency to present women only as victims, or in some cases, as victimizers. Download the complete “Women and Organized Crime in Latin America: Beyond Victims and Victimizers” report here

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