It has been well documented that women have been victims of war, enduring violence, rape, and even murder. Yet recently, in Latin America, mainly in high areas of drug crime such Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, women have shifted from being exclusively victims, to becoming an active and a growing percentage of criminals in drug related activity. They are in fact “feminizing” many components of the Latin American drug war in both sheer numbers and leadership.
Recent media coverage has popularized the use of the term and concept of feminization, specifically as it relates to Latin America’s drug wars. In the male dominated world of drug related crime, The New York Times reported, as a result of Mexico’s drug war, “the number of women incarcerated for federal crimes has grown by 400 percent since 2007, pushing the total female prison population past 10,000.”
In Brazil, where more cocaine is consumed than anywhere else in the Americas besides the U.S., an estimated 10,000 women are doing time for drug smuggling. Numerous women are just looking for economic opportunity in a tough global economic crisis, but women have been growing in numbers and in rank since the 1990’s — they are now leading criminal operations. For example, Sandra Ávila Beltrán also known as the “Queen of the Pacific” led the development of drug smuggling routes along Mexico’s Pacific coast, and Enedina Arellano Félix, is the currently alleged leader of the Mexican Tijuana drug cartel. She took over after her brother and former cartel leader was captured last year.
This is a new phenomenon. “It’s unheard of in the sense that we haven’t seen a woman inside the organized crime cartels reach such an exalted position in decades,” Mexico’s Assistant Secretary for Public Security Patricio Patiño told Newsweek. “Sandra’s rise basically has to do with two circumstances: her ties to a family that has been involved in drug trafficking over three generations, and a physical beauty that made her stand out as a woman.”
In some circumstances, women end up work along side boyfriends or husbands and end up in jail while their significant others, also involved in drug crime, roam free. As the NYT reports, “because Mexico’s justice system is so opaque, incompetent and corrupt, it is nearly impossible to know which prisoners deserve their punishment. Human rights lawyers say this is especially true for women, who are often unwittingly used by men they love.”
Yet according to the Los Angeles Times, for many women, joining this life is not a matter of choice. If their husbands or families are involved in drug related crime, they are “press-ganged, pushed by parents seeking wealth and influence, or don’t know what they’re getting into…and escape is rarely an option.” Once involved in this line of work, it is seemingly impossible to break out.
On the other hand, Denis Frossard, a prominent criminal judge in Brazil and author of Women in the Mafia states that, “before, we [judges] assumed that the only role women play in crime was as victims, now they are increasingly heading criminal operations, and drug trafficking is becoming more and more female all the time.”
The increased participation of women in drug-related crime has worried many Latin American country leaders because of potential disruption the family structure. The traditional family is patriarchal, with men as heads of households. Women usually stay within the home, as supportive roles rather than dominant ones within the prominent culture of “machismo” that runs through the veins of Latin America. As women join the ranks of traffickers, kidnappers, and “hit women,” not only do they gain new reins of power, but children are left without parents or born “jail-babies” – further disrupting the idea that women should stay at home to take care of their children.
While participation in the drug war can be a difficult way to make a living, in Colombia, where a violent drug related crime continues to rage, women may gain valuable benefits from being guerrillas in the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), Colombia’s largest and best-equipped rebel group. Over a period of 60 years, the FARC has grown from a small peasant organization to its present unprecedented military strength. The FARC finances its rebel operations through kidnapping and ransom, extortion, and narcotics trafficking. According to military analysts, the FARC earns between $250 and $300 million through criminal acts, of which 65 percent comes from the drug trade.
“Female guerrillas now constitute more than 30 percent of the FARC’s 17,000 fighters. Joining the rebels has allowed many teenage girls to break free of the traditional rural female roles of housekeeper and menial laborer. According to FARC Commander Simón Trinidad, there are lots of young girls in Colombia being, ‘exploited in the coal mines, the gold mines, the emerald mines, and in the coca and poppy fields.’ Although it is difficult to believe they are better off marching through Colombia’s remote jungles and mountains under a constant threat of attack, Trinidad claims that at least in the FARC they receive ‘clothes, food and an education,’” wrote the Colombia Journal recently.
This idea of the drug war’s feminization has not only exploded in recent news, but has also been popularized in literature and television. One of the most popular novels in Mexico today is “Queen of the South,” a story about a Mexican woman who becomes the most powerful drug trafficker in southern Spain. Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language content producer in the world, made a telenovela (Spanish soap opera) of it in 2011 and the ratings were off the charts in both Mexico and the U.S. The novel’s significance highlights the gap between the sexy myth of feminized crime, and the complex reality.
Sexy or not sexy, women are rapidly advancing in power and position among some of Latin America’s most ruthless drug cartels. What does this shift in power mean for illegal activity? Some say that as women take a more active role it will change the very nature of drug trafficking as we know it. Perhaps it may become less violent, and more businesslike. Women’s increased involvement in drug activities may disrupt the family structure, but perhaps creates a less brutal environment for Latin American countries as a whole. Children might be born in prisons, but perhaps fewer people may die. This remains to be seen. What does seem clear, however, is that the drug war’s feminization brings new roles for women, albeit illegal ones – woman are taking the lead, and it could mean some serious changes.