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Women and Drug Trafficking - Women Empowerment in an Illicit Business?

Globalistics and Globalization Studies 2021 64–71
Women and Drug Trafficking –
Women Empowerment in an Illicit Business?
Tijana Cupic
Boston University
The article tackles the issue of female roles in drug trafficking industry in Mexi-
co. Additionally, it presents some famous women drug dealers through history,
as well as the most common representation of a woman involved in drug traffick-
ing in some media and in narco culture. The used methodology requires an in-
terdisciplinary approach, since it includes literature overview, a brief discourse
analysis of selected online media and a brief analysis of statistical data on the
femicide rate in Mexico and its relationship with rising drug trafficking violence.
Keywords: women, empowerment, drug trafficking, female role, femicide.
Drug trafficking industry is not a new phenomenon across the globe. It is an old occupation
that involves different stakeholders, from small smugglers and weed and coca leaves grow-
ers to serious entrepreneurs and government officials and forces. Similar to most other legal
and common industries, drug trafficking is related to other illicit business, such as arms and
human trafficking, extortion or money laundering. Additionally, in its most extreme forms,
it provokes most vicious forms of violence such as torture, kidnapping and homicide. This
particular topic of drug smuggling has been broadly investigated in last three or so decades,
from different perspectives and through the eyes of sociologists, political scientists, anthro-
pologists and linguists. What especially contributes to drug trafficking to be a widely known
phenomenon is its media coverage and the rising narco culture in Latin America and the
Caribbean. This business, surprisingly easily woven into everyday life, is considered to be a
male dominant world. Taking that into consideration, the purpose of this article is to investi-
gate the role of women in drug trafficking, with focus on Mexico and U.S. border, and even-
tually to raise the question of a possible bad women empowerment.
Firstly, the rising violence in Mexico, and in the whole Latin America and the U.S. bor-
der, generates more complex and violent situations for women. According to Pierre Salama
(2008) and his study on violence in Latin America, a homicide rate is one of the factors that
can be measured and therefore taken crucial in order to see how the violence has increased in
Mexico. Statistically speaking, and taking official data into account (it is widely known that
there might be an enormous discrepancy between official data and a real situation in the con-
text of illicit drug trade), the figure shows femicide rate in Mexico in 2018. On the graph,
only those territories with more than 100 femicides are shown. It can be noticed that many
of the territories presented in the graph are those where drug related violence is known to
be present, such as Chihuahua, Baja California, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Mexico and Guerrero.
Although this number is incomparably higher for men, the number of homicide of women
in these areas cannot be neglected.
Cupic • Women and Drug Trafficking 65
Fig. Femicide rate in Mexico in 2018
Source: URL:
The topic of female roles in illicit business is not completely new, and although there are
not as many articles and books on this topic as there are on those related to men and male
dominance in this trade, the topic is not completely neglected. According to the UN report
(UNODC 2018), the drug trafficking organizations across the world are mainly led by men
and the role of women is ‘relatively insignificant’ (World Drug Report 2018). Women are
expected to fulfill the role of mothers, housekeepers and wives. However, this report
stresses that in Latin America women play a more active role in drug trafficking industry.
These more active roles may be the result of new family roles and economic need that has
been reconfiguring lately. Therefore, involvement of more women in drug trafficking may be
beneficial for the business since they are less likely to be suspected for criminal activities,
and they are inclined to accept less money than men for some jobs (Ibid.).
Anderson and Kavanaugh (2018) point out that there are two models of ‘drug market-
ing.’ The first one is a so-called business model, and within this model women are often
involved in drug trafficking in its bottom lines. The second one is an independent model,
and women are supposed to be more present in independent markets. These authors also
cite Fleetwood (2015) who stresses two important observations: first one is that women
still get involved into drug trafficking through their relationships with men, and the second
one is that they may have an important role and pass their business on to their daughters
(Anderson and Kavanaugh 2018). These statements about women in drug trafficking are
the most common; either they are present in the market through their relationship with
men or they may have a more active role; however, this is more typical of those who work
independently than of those who are a part of an organization.
It is not surprising that with the expansion of illicit markets and the rising relationship
between demand and offer, the number of women in drug trafficking also increases. There
are different reasons why women decide (or it may not even be consensual) to get in-
volved. For example, according to the UN report (UNODC 2018), in Latin America wom-
en with a history of sexual and physical violence and lower level of education tend to more
often become part of this illicit network. Also, Carrillo Hernández (2012) adds numerous
Globalistics and Globalization Studies
reasons why women immerse into drug trafficking: unemployment, social exclusion, ine-
quality, etc. There is an important factor to be taken into account, and that is a ‘moral’ one
that justifies a woman in drug trafficking if it is the only way to provide for her family
(Ibid.). In this sense, there is sometimes no that much difference between a decision of a
man and that of a woman regarding their reason to join drug trafficking and trade. Alt-
hough, when it comes to men, they are more likely to get involved into drug trafficking
due to fascination with luxury life and women, than for the family matters, as it is more
common for women. This is strongly related with traditional female and male role in a
society. Since it is traditionally expected from men to bring food and money to the table,
their fascination with drug trafficking comes from fast and easy money and social status
that can be easily bought in modern societies, as well as an easier access to beautiful
women, as they are one of the most known trophies that accompany a drug lord or even a
smaller smuggler or sicario.
According to the literature on female roles in drug trafficking, there has been made
a certain classification of these roles. It is quite clear that narco world is a man's world.
A man is a capo or a boss who has his own hitmen and informants (Jiménez Valdez 2014).
On the other hand, a woman is a subordinate subject, mostly for fun, sex, showing off or
closing the deal between partners (Ibid.). An important thing is stated by the UN report
(UNODC 2018), according to which women are a more vulnerable group in drug traffick-
ing. ‘They may have stronger feelings of responsibility for their family, can be exploited
easily by organized crime groups as a result of institutionalized sexism…’
One of the most common adjectives attributed to women in this industry is what Valen-
zuela Arce calls a ‘trophy woman’ (mujer trofeo). She is a symbol of social power and rich-
ness (Jiménez Valdez 2014). Moreover, Mata (2012) adds a category called simple narco
woman (mujer del narco), where she includes wives, daughters and other female relatives in
the family (Jiménez Valdez 2014). Of course, there is also an emerging woman drug lord
(mujer capo), although her presence is not that strong among male drug lords. A number of
scholars stress mulas as one of the roles women play in drug trafficking (Carrillo Hernández
2012). These women are almost at the bottom of drug trafficking chain, and they transport
drugs from point A to point B, mostly inside their bodies. Carrillo Hernandez adds that they
might even not know what exactly they are transporting, what amount and price, they just
know how much money they are going to receive for that action. Among all these types,
Jimenez Valdez (2014) also includes ‘buchonas’. This name refers to those women who use
their beauty and their relationship with men to enter this world. There are some additional
roles that do not specifically fall into a category, but these other roles women can play are in
public relations, certain decor at parties, they can be interchangeable if a deal is to be closed
(Ibid.) . As it can be seen, almost none of these roles puts a woman in a leading position and
not even close to it. Their roles are mostly based on what makes them women by male domi-
nant tradition, with focus on their body, beauty and family affairs.
Although the role of a female drug lord is not as common as that of a male drug lord,
there are certainly women who held the title of a narco boss in drug trafficking history. It
is often believed that this emerging figure of a female narco leader is one of a recent histo-
ry; however, there is evidence about women who participated in drug trafficking industry
and building empires in the 1920s. This section will offer a historical overview of the most
famous and notorious female drug dealers in Mexican history.
Cupic • Women and Drug Trafficking 67
Some researchers, like Franco Díaz (2015), note that in the 1920s women accounted
for almost 60 per cent of trafficking between Mexico and the United States. Some of the
most famous female drug traffickers she mentions (as well as other authors such as Carey)
are: Felisa Velásquez (The Queen of Marihuana), Lola la Chata and Ignacia La Nacha,
active in the 1930s and early 1940s (Ibid.) Lola la Chata was a drug lord herself, who, ac-
cording to Elaine Carey, set foot on scene at the times when women were pictured as vic-
tims of drug trafficking. She was not a victim, but an ‘opportunist’ who became famous,
rich and respected. She added something new in what is considered to be feminine and
domain of female power. She was working as a mule in La Merced from where she went
to the city of Juárez, and gave birth to two daughters. Firstly, during the 1920s, she was
not under the radar; however, in the 1930s she became visible in some documents in Mex-
ico and the United States. Elaine Carey (2009) notes that women like la Chata make devia-
tion in a male dominant history, and they change the way women are perceived as victims
and lured into drug trafficking, but she used two options that women could use in this
world: her family and sexual relations. She was caught and put in jail seven times between
1934 and 1945 (Carey and Cisneros Guzmán 2011). In the 1960s, Margarita Caro Lopez
played an active role in the links with marihuana smuggling, and in the 1980s it was Alicia
Félix Zazueta, a cousin of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Franco Díaz 2015). Franco Díaz
emphasizes that the female role has been declining from leadership activities to trophy
roles, especially after the 2006 reorganization in dealing with drug trafficking (war on
drugs) where they were sent back to their well-known ‘subordination’ roles (Ibid.). Apart
from different scholars investigating the topic of female leaders of drug cartels, even the
UN report (UNODC 2018) mentions some of the females in leading positions. Among
them is Enedina Arellano Félix, a supposed leader of the Tijuana cartel since 2008. Fur-
thermore, there is a widely common figure of Sandra Ávila Beltrán, known as ‘Queen of
Pacific’, arrested in 2007, then Griselda Blanco, known as ‘La Madrina’, who is believed
to have been trafficking cocaine between 1975 and the 2000s.
Some of these traffickers were widely known, for example, Sandra Ávila Beltrán, but
it is interesting to note that female drug leaders were not rare cases in the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries. They were able to create empires and smuggle different drugs in the
same way their male partners did, and this gave them the same commodities, money and
comfort as it did to men. However, as one can see even if the female role in drug traffick-
ing is more visible and present nowadays, it is rarely a leading role, and quite more often a
subordinate one, that might not even give women an option of a free choice. The circum-
stances that usually drive women to choose an illicit drug business may not be that easily
perceived as a choice. Although we cannot foresee that the same might happen with men
who get involved into drug trafficking, they are still less vulnerable than women in such
situation. The study shows that there is an increasing number of women in prisons due to
crimes against health. According to the UN report (UNODC 2018), from 2010 to 2014, it
is estimated that 35 per cent of women are in prison due to illicit drug trade business
worldwide, and the number of women in prisons has doubled across Latin America since
2000. More easily caught, more vulnerable and ‘less’ important, females in drug traffick-
ing are often seen as consumable goods.
Globalistics and Globalization Studies
Women in Media and Narco Culture
The media that produce enormous impact on how women are perceived in drug trafficking
are tabloids and narco culture. Jiménez Váldez (2014) notes that a typical female image,
that has become a symbol, includes a super skinny woman, however, with certain attrib-
utes such as breast size, big lips and dark long hair. This is a narco woman, but she is also
a symbol of desire, not only for men, but also for young females who dream of becoming
like them one day. She is someone's aspiration with perfect hair, teeth and most expensive
clothes. Her glorification is not based on her merits, nor her contributions, opinions any-
thing of the kind, but on her looks, clothes and a possibility to obtain a rich narco husband.
Narco culture is a space where many stereotypes about women originate, especially if
we take a closer look at some movies or narcotelenovelas. There are three important di-
mensions to show a female role related to drug trafficking on a screen: action chick
(Queen of South, Rosario Tijeras), woman reduced to her biological body (Mercader 2012)
(most common element that is present in almost every movie or TV show) or an obedient
woman (Narcos).
Palaversich in her work Heroes of our time: the figure of the drug-trafficker in Co-
lombian narcotelenovelas (2016) notes that the main female characters in soap operas such
as Rosario Tijeras and El Capo are the Hollywood image of action chicks, that is, the
femme fatale, beautiful, but dangerous. Although Palaversich investigates the narcoteleno-
velas in Colombia, this definition can be used in the analysis of Mexican female heroes,
such as Teresa Mendoza in Queen of South, because she is a Hollywood Charlie's angel.
The representation of women as action chicks can be somehow problematic, since on the
one hand, the romanticized image of a beautiful and dangerous woman is nothing new in
cinematography and the reception of the public is quite predictable. On the other hand, it is
an open question whether presenting women drug traffickers as action chicks might be
negative women empowerment or the only way to empower women in the world that is
dominated by men, with the traditionally understood masculine characteristics, is to give
them the characteristics of an action chick as a female version of a drug lord action man?
On the other hand, we have two completely opposite categories to the action chick: the
woman reduced to her biological body and the obedient woman, an image a lot closer to
those roles women represent today in drug trafficking. According to Pannetier-Leboeuf
(2017), drug traffickers share a common vision of the moral acceptability of instrumentali-
zation of the female body for their activities.
It is interesting to mention that in narcotelenovelas, in which women play the leading
part (they are not many), the sexual value is added to the action chick value. In other cases,
such as Narcos (crime drama television series), for example, the woman plays a sporadic
role and, consequently, her character is an instrumentalized body. This example of Narcos,
a Hollywood production that came to have greater international popularity than any other
series of the world on drug trafficking, has a problem in its representation of women. In
this series we do not find action chicks (although there are sporadic roles of women who
are not shown as obedient or reduced to their biological body, the role of the journalist
Carolina Álvarez, from season three, for example, even the character of Maritza, with
some changes in later Narcos Mexico). Women are the romanticized image of drug traf-
ficking: narco wives, narco mothers, narco lovers, completely deprived of their own iden-
tity, and their being and bodies exist in relation to the drug trafficker.
Cupic • Women and Drug Trafficking 69
If we focus on some tabloids headlines and descriptions of women connected with
drug trafficking, the emphasis is mostly on their beauty and how dangerous they are (the
action chick value added for sensationalist reasons). The phrases that can be read (almost
always accompanied with appropriate pictures of their beauty) are: they are beautiful and
dangerous (son bellas y peligrosas), women use their beauty (las mujeres utilizan su belle-
za) (LaPrensa 2015). If we read Infobae (2019), we may find some Instagram photos and
title ‘Powerful and enigmatic: the most beautiful narco women’ (Poderosas y enigmaticas:
las mujeres mas bellas del narco). The same article about Sandra Avila Beltran concludes
about the size of her breast and it is mentioned that she was intelligent; however, the pow-
er of her looks cannot be neglected. The same article mentions another female, related to
drug trafficking, Ana Marie Ladezma, known as the sexiest drug trafficker in the world, as
proclaimed by Playboy magazine. Thanks to her appearance, it was easy for her to move
through high society (there is also a racial insinuation due to her blonde hair and relatively
pale skin tone). Additionally, the article paints Claudia Berenice Ochoa Félix as Kim Kar-
dashian of the organized crime, and regarding Emma Coronel (El Chapo's wife), there are
tutorials on You Tube about how to look like her.
Another Infobae (2020) article, in comparison to the previous one, does not objecti-
vize women, as it explains an emerging role of a female smuggler, who sells drugs in
small amounts, and they are known under the street name as las tiradoras. Additionally,
the blog Talking Drugs (Menguzzato 2015) emphasizes that the media often neglects the
important role women may play in drug trafficking due to overwhelming machismo and the
subordinate position of a woman (as we have presented it here through tabloids and narco
culture). And eventually, Blasting News España (Bermeo 2016) published an opinion arti-
cle on what lies behind the pretty faces of narco girls. There is a specific paragraph in this
article that can be a whole life story of a woman in drug trafficking. The paragraph is origi-
nally in Spanish.
Let's try to be empathetic and put ourselves in the shoes of a young woman who
has life before her; however, poverty and hunger have broken most of her
dreams, let's also consider that perhaps because of her characteristic beauty she
has never had to fight for anything... One can assume that in order to get out of
poverty, she would do anything. At a certain moment, a powerful and rich man
who realizes her peculiar beauty and the fact that he can ‘show her off’ to his en-
emies, offers her everything she has dreamed of, of course, without telling her
what she might risk. It is then that the game begins.
This final comment, as well as all the previous ones, mainly reduces women to their
beauty, their bodies and the role of a victim or an easy prey for a drug lord. As it was stat-
ed before, the female role in drug trafficking may vary, from mulas to trophies, and even
to drug lords; however, pop culture and especially media coverage focus on the physical
aspect. By doing so, their value is unfairly reduced. If we focus on the most frequently
used words, those would be: beautiful, dangerous, Kardashian, Playboy, powerful man,
and poverty.
The struggle for equality is particularly difficult in drug trafficking. Women in this indus-
try tend to be more vulnerable, deprived of their rights and used and abused. In this article
we have brought attention to recent femicide rate in Mexico, and how it might be connect-
Globalistics and Globalization Studies
ed with drug trafficking industry and the rising violence. Additionally, the female role in
this industry has been presented, together with famous drug dealers in the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries. Moreover, we have emphisezed that narco culture and tabloids in
showing women mostly reduce to their bodies with strong focus on sexual value they have
to offer.
The female role is yet to be more investigated in social sciences and especially cultur-
al studies. In the era of women empowerment, we have to ask ourselves what are the con-
sequences of empowerment in illicit drug trade. On the other hand, the vulnerability of
women, their presence in jails, and the increasing number of femicides show that this issue
needs to be tackled not just on a wider scale but more carefully. For future researches, it
may be important to examine in detail the relationship between femicide and drug traffick-
ing, and the question of problematic women empowerment in illicit drug trade. Besides,
the impact of tabloids and narco culture (shows, movies, and corridos) on women and their
perception of drug trafficking is yet to be studied.
Anderson, T. L., and Kavanaugh, P. R. 2018. Women's Evolving Roles in Drug Trafficking
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
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This paper examines the representation of drug traffickers in Colombian narcotelenovelas. While the Colombian official discourse treats these characters as the embodiment of evil and cruelty, narcotelenovelas treat them as models of social mobility in countries characterized by social injustice. The figure of drug trafficker (narcotraficante) represented in Colombian TV series is constructed at the intersection of two myths: the ancient myth of the social bandit, a brave macho man who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, and the contemporary myth about the capitalist entrepreneur (a self-made man) who rises from poverty and marginality to a position of power and wealth.
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the objective of this article is to identify the changes that have taken place in women's participation in the con-text of Mexico's drug war, as well as to show the implica-tions of these changes for women in the northwest part of the country. Introducción Para cumplir con el objeto de este texto, primero se definen algu-nos conceptos útiles para explicar la construcción social del género. Región y sociedad / númeRo especial 4 / 2014
Objetivos: identificar y develar los estereotipos y supuestos de género en la agenda periodística de la Ciudad de México, en dos temas de la participación de las mujeres: las elecciones federales de 2009 y el narcotráfico y secuestro.Metodología: se realizó una revisión crítica del discurso periodístico y sus mandatos socioculturales. La hipótesis: la prensa da cuenta del lugar real que tienen las mujeres en la sociedad, más allá de la política pública y el imaginario social que propalan la igualdad y la casi equidad entre géneros. El corpus analizado comprende la información, la opinión y los gráficos en cinco diarios de circulación nacional (El Sol de México, El Universal, La Jornada, Milenio y Reforma), sobre las candidatas en las elecciones federales de 2009 y sobre cuatro casos emblemáticos de mujeres que se vieron inmiscuidas en el narcotráfico y el secuestro. En el segundo tema, el secuestro, se revisó un diario más, Excélsior y 2 revistas semanales (Proceso y Milenio semanal).Resultados: se encontró que la cobertura periodística sobre mujeres, ya sea en la actividad política o en el crimen organizado, no es equilibrada ni objetiva, depende de supuestos, prejuicios y estereotipos de género, pese a lo que se cree y afirma.Conclusiones: el periodismo revela el nivel y estatus social respecto a la equidad entre géneros. Retoma, refuerza y recicla mandatos patriarcales sobre el ser y hacer de las mujeres. En los casos analizados, la cobertura se vio aderezada desde la imaginación y condena por moverse fuera del rol asignado
This article uses materials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and its predecessor, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and of the U.S. Department of the Treasury to document the thirty-year career of the female Mexican heroin peddler and trafficker Lola la Chata and the efforts of police, government officials, and diplomats on both sides of the border to undermine her criminal empire. By placing women within contemporary studies of drug trafficking, la Chata complicates the masculine constructions of the history of narcotics. An examination of the evidence reveals la Chata's transnational threat and her fluidity and flexibility in responding to policy shifts in Mexico, the United States, and Canada over three decades.
Las mujeres en el narcotráfico: Un breve análisis de su personalidad
  • T Bermeo
Bermeo, T. 2016. Las mujeres en el narcotráfico: Un breve análisis de su personalidad. Blasting News España. September 20. URL: Accessed March 20, 2020.
The Misunderstood Role of Women in Latin America's Drug Trade. Talking Drugs
  • Ch Menguzzato
Menguzzato, Ch. 2015. The Misunderstood Role of Women in Latin America's Drug Trade. Talking Drugs, February 11. URL: Accessed January 20, 2020.
Imágenes femeninas en el cine mexicano de narcotráfico
  • Y Mercader
Mercader, Y. 2012. Imágenes femeninas en el cine mexicano de narcotráfico. Tramas 36: 209-237. URL: mexicano_de_narcotrafico. Accessed September 10, 2019.
¿Víctimas del necropoder? La construcción del cuerpo femenino en el cine mexicano sobre narcotráfico
  • G Pannetier-Leboeuf
Pannetier-Leboeuf, G. 2017. ¿Víctimas del necropoder? La construcción del cuerpo femenino en el cine mexicano sobre narcotráfico. En Comunicación y Medios 36: 43-54. URL: Accessed September 10, 2019.