Women Bring Fresh Blood to Drug War

Guillermina Castro Lopez, a mother of three, is serving 15 years in a Mexican prison for helping a trafficker smuggle 2 pounds of heroin. (Photo by Don Bartlett)Guillermina Castro Lopez, a mother of three, is serving 15 years in a Mexican prison for helping a trafficker smuggle 2 pounds of heroin. (Photo by Don Bartlett)In the story making the rounds here in Mexico’s drug capital, the setting is a beauty parlor. A woman with wealth obtained legally criticizes a younger patron who is married to a trafficker. The “narco-wife” orders the hairdresser to shave the first woman’s head. Terrified, the hairdresser complies.

Urban legend or real? It almost doesn’t matter; it’s the sort of widely repeated account that both intimidates and titillates. And it highlights a disturbing trend: As drug violence seeps deeper into Mexican society, women are taking a more hands-on role.

In growing numbers, they are being recruited into the ranks of drug smugglers, dealers and foot soldiers. And in growing numbers, they are being jailed and killed for their efforts.

In the state of Sinaloa, the wives of drug lords were long viewed as trophies with rhinestone-studded fingernails and endless surgical enhancements.

Now wives — and mothers and daughters — are being used by male traffickers because women can more easily pass through the military checkpoints that have popped up along many drug transport routes.

As Mexico has become a nation that also consumes drugs, women have become addicts, which sucks them into the narcotics underworld.

Mexico’s worst economic crisis since World War II is helping fuel the trend; for desperate women, dealing and smuggling are often seen as a more dignified job than prostitution, said Pedro Cardenas, a Sinaloa state public security official in charge of prisons.

Drug violence that preys on women has become an urgent problem in the past year, which has seen more killings than ever before, said Margarita Urias, head of the Sinaloa Institute for Women.

On average in Sinaloa this year, a woman has been killed every week in what authorities think are gangland hits.

“It is a social cancer contaminating women who weren’t touched before,” Urias said. “When we are so vulnerable, how do we educate and bring up our children? When insecurity overwhelms us, how do we inject values into our homes? How can we remain immune?”

Veronica Vasquez curses her drug-smuggling husband.

He wasn’t at home the night the army came calling. She didn’t have time to dispose of the bags of cocaine he had hidden in the bedroom. Now she’s serving five years in the prison in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, and he’s still free.

“I am paying for his crime,” said Vasquez, 32. “But I knew what he was doing.”

Vasquez, who has two children, lost her freedom along with all the trappings of the good life she enjoyed: the jewelry, designer handbags and fancy sunglasses.

“It is all gone,” she said. As for her husband, “He is dead to me.”

Carmen Elizalde was caught transporting 220 pounds of cocaine from Panama to Mexico. Nabbed on the Honduran border with Guatemala and sentenced to 18 years in prison, she says the deal was her husband’s doing. She was duped, she said, into going along on what he portrayed as a vacation in Panama. But she didn’t ask many questions either.

“Truth is, I didn’t want to examine his activities,” said Elizalde, 49, a mother of two. “He was giving us a good life, and I didn’t care where the money came from.”

Mirna Cartagena blames no one but herself. She wanted the quick, easy money. For $1,000, all she had to do was put about 7 pounds of cocaine in her suitcase and board a bus from Culiacán to Mexicali, a city on the California border. Police pulled her from the bus about halfway along the route, and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“It was a matter of necessity and ignorance, of not thinking of alternatives,” Cartagena, 31, said with a toss of her long, curly hair.

Nearly a quarter of the inmates in the Culiacán prison are women; nationally, it’s 5 percent. The most dramatic change is the type of conviction. A decade ago, the vast majority of women in prison were there for theft or “crimes of passion,” such as the killing of a spouse or lover.

Today, the majority are incarcerated for crimes related to drug trafficking, Cardenas said, and 80 percent of first-time inmates are drug users.

In the bloody battles to dominate the drug trade, the traditional codes among traffickers that left families untouched have largely broken down. Being a narco-wife isn’t the armor it once was.

Maria Jose Gonzalez seemed to have everything going for her. She won the crown at the Sun Festival beauty pageant. She had a budding career as a singer. And she had studied law.

But authorities suspect that Gonzalez and her husband got mixed up with the Sinaloa cartel, members of which might have blamed them for the loss of 9 tons of marijuana in an army raid.

The 22-year-old woman’s body was found dumped along a road on the southern edge of Culiacán last spring, near a sign that warns, “Don’t throw trash.” Nearby was the body of her husband, Omar Antonio Avila, a used-car salesman. She had been shot in the head; he was blindfolded and handcuffed. Her eyes were open, staring skyward. She wore golden sandals.

– Article from the Los Angeles Times viaThe Austin American-Statesman.