A new study is seeking to address the complex and rapidly evolving roles that women play in criminal structures, which have often gone underreported or been simplified in both academia and the press.
In this report, "Women and Organized Crime in Latin America: Beyond Victims and Victimizers," Universidad del Rosario and InSight Crime's Colombian Organized Crime Observatory seek to explore this fascinating dynamic.
*Download the "Women and Organized Crime in Latin America: Beyond Victims and Victimizers" report here.
This report looks at three criminal economies, drug trafficking, human trafficking and migrant smuggling to reveal that women often play myriad roles at the same time, ascending to power or wielding influence in a range of manners.
On the one hand, it is true that many women remain in criminal roles with low responsibility assigned to them by largely male leaders, such as working on coca farms or in drug labs, acting as drug mules, recruiting victims for human trafficking rings, organizing logistics or taking part in microtrafficking.
The dangers involved in these roles have driven the rapid increase in the incarceration of women, which increased by 52 percent worldwide between 2009 and 2019.
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But this is not the full picture. In this report, InSight Crime and Universidad del Rosario include profiles of some of the important women in organized crime in the Americas, many of them linked by a common thread: the use of violence.
When beginning or ascending up the ranks of a criminal enterprise, violence is a tool that women have used - to a greater or lesser extent - to achieve their mission. And the profiles of criminal leaders from Colombia, Guatemala and México in this report show what use they made of it.
One of this effort's main goals is to show that organized crime is not merely a male environment, but that gender largely defines the activities and roles women and men take on.
The report was launched at an event in Bogotá, Colombia on March 9, with its research coordinator and professor at Universidad del Rosario, Arlene Tickner, explaining what made this avenue of research so worthy of exploration.
"We have a paradoxical situation in which women are increasingly assuming roles in different facets of crime. However, the issue remains unnoticed within academic research and public policy in Latin America," said Tickner.
For her, one metric shows why this phenomenon needs to be analyzed: the constant rise in female incarceration rates across Latin America for the last decade, with many of these women having been imprisoned for minor crimes related to drug trafficking.
This joint report tells how most of these women come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, have little formal education and have few formal job opportunities due to gender stereotypes.
In addition, according to Tickner, women have been seen largely as victims of organized crime for decades, especially in the realms of human trafficking and drug trafficking. This has led to the falsehood that even if they do participate in criminal acts, they are assumed to play only subordinate, non-violent roles.
In order to overcome these obstacles, it is necessary to understand the participation of women through a gender lens, Tickner said, in order to prevent gender stereotypes from clouding the full understanding of organized crime.
Regarding what Colombian authorities are doing, Lieutenant Colonel Lurangeli Franco from the Police Unit for Peace Building (Unidad Policial para la Edificación de la Paz – UNIPEP) said that the police's Information System for Criminal Policy was the country's first major effort to address the participation of women in criminal economies.
She added that the "recommendations of this investigation should be used to help transform Colombia's security and justice sectors to make them more sensitive to gender issues."
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For Miguel Serrano, head of territorial studies for the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s Illicit Cultivations Monitoring System (Sistema Integrado de Monitoreo de Cultivos Ilícitos – SIMCI), this report helps to break down the roles women play within criminal organizations.
Serrano focused on the investigation's findings about women entering criminal structures willingly. Research into female Colombian prisoners in 2019 found that at least 24 percent of women had begun participating in crime of their own will.
But he added that such investigations faced the same challenges as other reports into organized crime, namely that the underground nature of these criminal economies makes it difficult to fully realize the participation of women.
Finally, Irina Cuesta, a researcher of conflict dynamics at Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz – FIP), stressed that cultural stereotypes about the roles women play in organized crime had inevitably influenced previous research in this area.
While praising this new report for breaking down the division between victims and victimizers, she said that it also showed that "secondary roles" played by women in criminal groups, such as logistics, are more complex than previously thought.
In her closing statement, Tickner responded that the blurred lines between victims and victimizers were crucial to understanding the decisions women take in organized crime structures. According to the Universidad del Rosario professor, while women in leadership positions may feel "empowered," this does not eliminate the possibility of them having been victims in the past or becoming so again.
*Download InSight Crime's "Women and Organized Crime in Latin America: Beyond Victims and Victimizers" report here.