Women play major roles in drug trade

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
At the lowest level of the illegal drug trade are cases like that of Laura Trevino, her mother and two sisters.

The four women arrested in June allegedly stashed approximately 37 pounds of cocaine packages inside “girdles” three of them wore underneath their clothes. Authorities said they attempted to smuggle the narcotics through the B&M International Bridge.Court testimony later revealed Trevino had admitted to organizing the operation and would be paid $2,000 after they had crossed into the United States, a small percentage of the nearly $1 million estimated street value of the drugs.

The case was the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley. But among the roles women play in the illegal drug business, a majority of them, like Trevino and her family, still take a huge risk for a small cut of their load’s worth.

Women have had long-standing roles in Mexico’s illicit drug trade despite presumptions that in the country’s macho society the business has been entirely male-dominated. Many have also historically held powerful positions, though they have had to “pay their dues twice as hard” to move up the drug syndicate, officials and researchers said.

In the past, women in the narcotics trade tended to fall behind-the-scenes, but their roles have grown more prominent in recent years as their participation in all areas of the business has increased – and continues to rise.

To track the increase, researchers point to the number of women behind bars for drug-related crimes, which began to rise at alarming rates in the 1980s.

From 1990 to 1996, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 101 percent, according to a 1997 prisoner’s report from the Federal Bureau of Statistics. Since, the increase has slowed, rising only 3 percent by 2006, as the latest figures show.

However, the Sentencing Project estimates that the annual growth of female inmates, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasingly at nearly double the rate for men.

“Recently, women have been entering the business at increasing levels at every level of the drug cartel,” said Howard Campbell, anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “But most women in the trafficking business don’t get caught. So, incarceration and indictment rates may not fully speak to the issue of who is doing it.”

He found rising numbers of women incarcerated for drug-related offenses at U.S. and Mexican prisons, increases of women dying in drug violence and interviewed dozens of women for a study published in the winter edition of the Anthropological Quarterly.

Two key reasons account for the increases: Mexican drug cartels are at large and have grown in size and profitability, while poverty in Mexico and along the border remains high, Campbell said.

Women have then been able to expand their positions in the drug trade, where many find the lucrative opportunities to move up economically. Their position can serve as a vehicle to empowerment, Campbell said.
At the highest level of drug cartels in the recent limelight have been “queen pins” Enedina Arellano Felix and Sandra Avila Beltràn. Felix is alleged to have become one of the leaders of the Tijuana cartel across California’s border after her brothers were murdered.

Beltran, dubbed the “Queen of the Pacific,” was indicted on drug charges in Florida four years ago and is said to have developed smuggling routes through Mexico for a Colombian cartel. A beautiful woman, Beltran would ask to do her make-up before her court proceedings and gained even greater fame for her haughty and arrogant behavior.

More women have also become notorious brokers and money launderers. Large sums of money are laundered in a small street in Mexico City, where beautiful women in low-cut dresses provide currency exchanges for tourists, Campbell said.

However, the majority of women continue to fall into the lowest levels of the illegal drug trade, said Correctional Program Specialist Marueen Buell of the Prison’s Division for the National Institute of Corrections.
In the business, these women are known as “sirenas,” “las sanchas” and, as in the case of the allegations against the Trevino family, “mules.”

The most expandable and most essential group is the “mules.” They are the “laborers” who run the risk of moving the illegal narcotics from Mexico into the United States.

“There are risky, huge implications for carrying drugs, but there is a susceptibility among these women because they may not be as aware of these risks or the economic circumstances are so bad at home,” said Rosalie Pacula, director of Rand’s Policy Research Center.

Although not the case for all, the majority of women who enter the lower levels of the narcotics trade tend to be poor and living in desperate conditions, said Jasmine Taylor, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. As a growing number of them become the head of the household, they must provide for their families.

“So their life situation is used as an enticement to enter this line of work,” Taylor said. “Another way they join the drug trade is by being coerced by a male actors, husbands, boyfriends.”

While women might be entering the business in higher numbers, illegal drug organizations may have also increased their use of women as drug couriers in response to past law enforcement strategies, Pacula said. As technology becomes more advanced, smugglers need to find new, creative ways to get the drugs across.
Traffickers know women can play on gender stereotypes to avoid being questioned, researchers and law enforcement officials said. Women are also told to wear sexy clothing and flirt with officials.

“There have been more women, women with children and whole families [caught smuggling],” said Capt. Jack PeÐa with the Criminal Investigations Division for the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “Drug traffickers think that they can use women to cross the drugs because they may look less suspicious. But we are checking everyone.”

However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said smugglers are constantly changing their methods.

During various periods, teens and even senior citizens will be used to cross narcotics, said Roger Maier, U.S. CBP public affairs officer for El Paso.

“If you happen to see more instances of females caught with drug loads recently, it may not necessarily be indicative of an overall trend because we have seen it before and we will likely see it again,” said Rick Pauza, Laredo’s U.S. CBP public affairs officer.

Whether women are being used at higher rates also depends on the region smugglers are in and possibly the drug being crossed, Pacula said. The booming Mexican city of Tijuana across from southern California, for example, has a large population of young people from which drug-traffickers draw upon, she said.

Nevertheless, as the illicit drug trade expands in profitability, women are going to take the risk to enter into the trade by their own accord, Taylor said.

“Now in the last three years, the number of women searched has increased,” she said. “But money is still a strong motivator for women to join the business.”

As published Aug. 17, 2008