Women’s participation in drug trafficking has recently made the headlines thanks to Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, 2011) a Mexican film about a beauty pageant wannabe who is kidnapped and forced to become a drug runner for a gang of traffickers in Tijuana, received critical acclaim at Cannes last year. The screen play is loosely based on a real life incident in 2008 in which beauty queen Laura Zuñiga was arrested aboard a lorry full of explosives along with drug traffickers in Guadalajara, Jalisco. Similarly, La Reina del Sur (The Queen of the South), was one of this year’s most popular soap operas produced by television network Telemundo (USA) in conjunction with the Antena 3 network (Spain) and RTI Producciones (Colombia). The script was based on a novel by Spanish author Arturo Pérez Reverte and depicts the rise of Teresa Mendoza, a young woman from Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, who becomes the most powerful drug trafficker in southern Spain. It seems likely that Mendoza is based on the example of Sandra Ávila Beltrón, alias the Queen of the Pacific, ex member of the Sinaloa cartel, who is currently in a Mexican prison waiting extradition to the US.
While undoubtedly showing how some women have become involved in drug gangs, neither screenplay could be said to accurately portray the complex realities of women’s experience in drug trafficking. Unsurprisingly, women’s participation in trafficking imitates their roles in other, more licit activities and clearly reflects Mexico’s dominant cultural attitudes towards them.
Many women are drawn into gangs via their partners. They have usually taken the role of administrators, although some exceptional women, like the fictitious Queen of the South and the real life, Queen of the Pacific, have been able to advance to active organizational and leadership roles. Often this leadership is founded on their authority as maternal figures, especially in those gangs who hierarchy is in the hands of one or more family. One example would be Enedina Arellano Félix, the alleged head of the Tijuana cartel, who is the sister of former gang leaders and mother to the supposed operational leader, Fernando Sánchez Arellano.
As partners and mothers, the biggest danger for female members of trafficking gangs is domestic, just as it is for women as a whole in Mexican society. A recent study by the Guerrero State Women’s Institute (an official body charged with the protection of women’s rights with branches in all Mexico’s states) claims for example, that women “executed” by the gangs are not murdered in relation to their trafficking activities, but rather in the context of their relationships with male drug gang members (CNN Mexico, 9 February 2011). In Mexico City, the director of the city government’s women’s shelter, says that the arrival of women fleeing from relationships with abusive traffickers is putting the refuge at risk, since the gangs do not limit themselves to threatening the individual women, but will threaten the shelter as a whole (El Universal, 25 November 2011).
As Mexican journalist and activist Lydia Cacho has documented (Sin Embargo, 10 November 2011), traffickers also kidnap, rape and enslave women, especially indigenous girls, for their own use and/or prostitution. She alleges that 45% of women who are rescued from brothels on the border with the United States are of indigenous origin, a great number of them little more than children. Cacho cites the case of the 12 year old daughter of Martina, an indigenous woman from Michoacán, who was stolen from her home by traffickers during an attack on their house in 2010. Martina has not heard from her since. According to one of her sources, this is a common practice among the traffickers of Michoacán, who use the girls as cooks, cleaners and as sexual slaves.
Finally, according to a recent report by the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico, (Diagnóstico de las Condiciones de vulnerabilidad que propician la Trata de Personas en México) the drug gangs also control people-trafficking, the second most profitable illegal trade in Mexico after drugs. Due to its geographical position, Mexico is the ideal route by which to ship people (and drugs) to the United States and Canada and its tourist hotspots in Cancun and other beach resorts, means it has a thriving internal market for trafficked women. In fact, Mexico is second only to Thailand for the number of women it traffics to the US.
The report calculates that 12 million people are victims of trafficking in Mexico, 79% of who are forced into prostitution. For its part, Federal government’s statistics (INEGI, 2009) suggest that women and children are the most vulnerable groups, especially those who are also migrants or of indigenous origin. Most migrants come from Central America, although it appears that a good number of women also come from Eastern Europe (Sin Embargo, 22 November 2011). Lydia Cacho claims that the traffickers also force homeless children in Cancun into prostitution (Cimac Noticias, 9 November 2011), while a report from the Guerrero State Women’s Institute suggests that many children are sold into prostitution by their fathers (Milenio, 22 November 2011).
This article was originally published at http://e-feminist.com/home/2012/4/25/violence-in-mexico-women-and-the-drug-traffickers.html