There was a time not long ago when Mexican police could parade accused drug cartel leaders and hit men before the press without having to wear ski masks to hide their own faces. Those earlier times couldn’t quite be described as halcyon, but much has worsened since outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched his war on drugs nearly six years ago, a war that has left more than 50,000 dead in cartel-related slayings and triggered brutal infighting between the cartels. Ski masks are now de rigueur for police—they risk being slain if identified by the cartels. Something else has changed. A growing number of those being trotted out before the media are now women, with allegations against them just as gruesome as those against the men.
The accused “narcas” generally adopt the same hard look of disinterest their male counterparts assume. That was the expression on the face of María Guadalupe Jiménez López after her arrest in Monterrey in May. The 26-year-old known as “La Tosca,” the tough one, is accused of leading a group of killers responsible for a slew of grisly murders, including the killings of rivals and police officers. Among her alleged crimes are the torture and killing of two teen boys who ran afoul of her bosses in the feared Los Zetas cartel.
Since 2007, more than 10,000 women have been arrested for cartel-related offences ranging from drug trafficking and money laundering to murder. And nearly 50 of those arrested occupied key management roles in the country’s warring cartels, according to the federal attorney general’s office.
Last October, Mexican marines in Córdoba, in the eastern state of Veracruz, captured a woman alleged to be the financial head of Los Zetas for the whole of southern Mexico. The 29-year-old Carmen Saenz Consuelo Marquez, nicknamed “Claudia,” allegedly oversaw the collection, auditing and laundering of the cartel’s profits, the selling of counterfeit goods and gas siphoned from the pipelines of the state-owned oil company, Pemex, as well as extortion and kidnapping. Her region included the states of Hidalgo, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Tabasco and Quintana Roo. She was also in charge of the payroll of the Zetas in the region, from local bosses to assassins, dealers and distributors.
Before the drug war, it was rare for women to ascend to the top ranks of the drug underworld and become crime queenpins. The most prominent female boss is a woman the Mexican press anointed the “Queen of the Pacific,” Sandra Ávila Beltran, the niece of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the undisputed godfather of Mexican drug smuggling in the 1970s and 1980s. It took the glamorous and ambitious Ávila more than a decade to reach the top ranks of the Sinaloa cartel, seducing several notorious kingpins and uniting Colombian and Mexican gangs along the way, according to court papers filed by Mexican prosecutors.
Since her 2007 arrest, though, more women have been populating cartel ranks at all levels, including being recruited and trained as assassins like La Tosca. And they are also moving up more quickly to take on leadership roles. A new book by Arturo Santamaría Gómez, Female Bosses of Narco-Traffic, details how “widows, daughters, lovers and girlfriends” of men in the Mexican drug trade have entered the business in increasingly powerful positions. It is arguably easier now for women to punch through the “glass ceiling” when it comes to the drug world than in legitimate business in Mexico.
The growing trend is partly a consequence of the increasing death toll. One narca told Gomez: “After they killed my father, my brother remained. But he was gunned down in the most recent shootout, and now I have taken the reins.” On top of the killings, cartel manpower has been drained by arrests. Mexico’s prison population has swollen dramatically, with 223,000 inmates now housed in federal and state facilities. Regular mass jailhouse breakouts engineered by the cartels can’t replenish the ranks quickly enough. As a result, the cartels have had to turn to womanpower to fill in labour shortages.
Initially, women were confined to work in the “softer areas” such as “narco-diplomacy,” negotiations with other cartels, and money laundering. But with manpower shortages pressing, women have moved up fast. Santamaría argues women resort to violence less often. But the rise of women in the drug underworld has actually coincided with ever more grisly slayings. Torture, decapitation and dismemberment of victims have become the depressing norm in recent years.
As the women get caught up in sweeps and arrests and are bumped off by rivals, the cartels have been recruiting women at younger ages. Los Zetas enlists women as hired killers more actively than other cartels and, unlike their competitors, who prefer to stick within connected families, the Zetas hire all over the country and from anyone who shows willingness. They are leading the way in recruiting younger women killers.
Last summer, police in the state of Jalisco presented three young women whom they said had been groomed by Los Zetas as assassins. They were arrested after a shootout with police. The youngest, Maria Celeste, a 16-year-old from Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, told reporters she had received two months of training from former soldiers and had been taught how to handle AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles. Her arrest had prevented her further education: she hadn’t yet been schooled in the use of grenades.