Drug War's Women Defy Definition as Their Role Grows

By Will Godfrey 08/15/11

With more female players than ever in Mexico's drug war, authorities find it harder to tell the criminals from the victims.

Beltran: Jailed Queen of the Pacific Photo via

Women are playing an ever-larger role in the Mexican drug war, reports the New York Times. Female incarceration rates for federal crimes have jumped by 400% since 2007, surpassing even the surge in male imprisonment during a bloody few years, and putting the total number of women in prison above 10,000. But women don't necessarily play the same roles as men—and authorities are often unsure how to deal with those they catch. Women often enter the war as mules, or as "la gancha" ("the hook"—attracting male victims for kidnapping or murder), as well as assassins. Then there was the "Queen of the Pacific," Sandra Avila Beltran, who reputedly had affairs with several famous drug barons before becoming one in her own right, prior to her arrest in 2007—she somehow contrived to receive secret Botox injections in a maximum-security prison earlier this year. High-profile drug baronesses are the objects of as much fascination in Mexico as they are in the US, where last year's conviction of Customs and Border Protection double-agent Martha Garnica garnered particular attention. But a far more common problem for Mexican authorities—as girlfriends and wives drive vehicles stuffed with drugs and teenage girls try to cross the US border with packages strapped to their inner thighs—is sorting the willing participants from the unwitting dupes in a world where many women are exploited, with or without their knowledge, by the drug-running men in their lives.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.