With Mexico’s drug war claiming the lives of more and more men, the ranks of the country’s drug cartels are swelling with a growing number of women, a shift that one researcher claims poses a unique threat to law enforcement.
The researcher, Mexican academic Arturo Santamaria, is the editor and chief author of the recently-published work entitled “Las Jefas del Narco” (The Narco’s Female Bosses), a collection of eight essays based on interviews with women who hold or once held positions of power in drug trafficking networks in the northwestern states of Durango, Sinaloa and Chihuahua.
The shift is not new. While for many years women in the drug trade were characterized as solely working as drug mules or serving as mere targets for revenge killings, this has changed over the past decade. In 2010, Mexico’s National Women's Institute (INMUJERES) released a report claiming that the number of females convicted in connection to the drug trade had risen by 400 percent over the past three years alone. Women are increasingly working as plaza chiefs, hit squad bosses and kidnapping ring leaders, and some have even attracted the attention of anti-drug officials in the United States because of their work.
Many commentators, including InSight Crime, have deliberated the significance of this trend, especially as it relates to media portrayals of women in the drug war.
What is new, however, is the assertion that this change in demographics is the result of a security policy based on targeting men. As these men are either captured or killed, the book suggests, women – very often relatives --find themselves filling their shoes. "The majority of those killed are male drug traffickers,” Santamaria told AFP, claiming that this has caused a “mandatory succession” in their ranks.
“They killed my father, leaving my brother, but he died in the last shootout and today I am in charge,” one of the book’s subjects told interviewer Christian Moreno, according to the wire agency.
Moreover, Santamaria says that this trend represents a new kind of risk to security forces, because women employ a different kind of management strategy within drug trafficking organizations. According to him, “This will strengthen drug trafficking, making it harder to combat because they are doing it more intelligently.”
Santamaria stressed this in a recent interview with Mexican publisher Random House Mondadori, arguing that women “are more cautious, less flashy, shrewder, more calculating; they weigh their options more.”
And while some might accuse the Autonomous University of Sinaloa professor of promoting a stereotype, he maintains: “[The women interviewed] say this themselves, this isn’t an interpretation. They themselves admit this upon being asked.”
But attempts to portray Mexico’s drug trade as anything but a “man’s game” are inaccurate. The vast majority of cartel members, foot soldiers and leaders alike, remain male. Even the tiny minority of women at the top of these organizations, like the so-called “Queen of the Pacific,” Sandra Avila Beltran, and the Tijuana Cartel's Enedina Arellano Felix, owe much of their influence to romantic relationships with powerful men and family ties. The former was the love interest of two dominant figures in the Sinaloa Cartel, and the latter became more involved in the drug trade after her brothers were all arrested or slain.
Ultimately, while the rise of women in Mexico’s criminal underworld is sociologically significant (especially considering the country’s reputation for machismo), it cannot be said to have had a major effect on cartel behavior in the country. Regardless of the gender of a drug boss, he or she will have to respond to the same incentives associated with large-scale drug distribution, much of which have to do with territorial control. When push comes to shove, regardless of how “cautious” she is, a female plaza chief has to be just as likely to order a hit as her male counterparts. If she isn’t, she risks losing her position, and likely her life.
Image, above, shows four teenage girls who were arrested in June 2011 at an alleged "Zetas training camp," where they were reportedly receiving instruction on the use of weapons and telecommunications equipment.