The Misunderstood Role of Women in Latin America's Drug Trade

Sandra Avila Beltran in 2013

The recent release of an alleged prominent female drug trafficker draws attention to the often under-explored role of women in the drug trade.

On February 7, Sandra Avila Beltran, the so-called Queen of the Pacific (La Reina del Pacífico) and alleged drug queenpin was released from prison in Mexico after a judge quashed her five year money laundering sentence, reported the Associated Press.

Avila Beltran is one of Mexico's most notorious alleged drug traffickers, having first been arrested back in 2007 on charges relating to a 9 ton shipment of cocaine that was seized in 2001. She was acquitted in Mexico in 2010, but later extradited to the US in 2012 on separate trafficking charges. Though convicted of being an "accessory after the fact" in a cocaine trafficking case, she received a short sentence and was released in 2013, only to be re-arrested on her return to Mexico.

Avila Beltran's ties to drug trafficking are hardly surprising given her personal connections; she is the niece of convicted drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias "The Godfather," who is serving a 40-year sentence for the murder of a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, and was romantically involved with Colombia's Juan Diego Espinoza Ramirez of the Norte del Valle Cartel.

Due to the latter relationship, Avila Beltran was said to have served as a key link between the Sinaloa and Norte del Valle Cartels.

While the Queen's shady dealings and her apparent ability to avoid harsh sentencing are a story in and of themselves, her alleged prominence in the male-dominated world of drug trafficking and organized crime highlights an often misunderstood dynamic. 

The example of Avila Beltran is certainly rare, but by no means does it stand in isolation. One of the biggest gangsters of the cocaine trafficking heydays in the 1970s and 80s was a woman; Griselda Blanco, the so-called Godmother of Cocaine, whom the DEA arrested in 1985. 

Blanco was suspected in more than 40 murders, though was only convicted for three and released from a US prison in 2004 on a technicality. Back in Colombia, Blanco was killed in a motorcycle drive-by assassination in 2012.

When it comes to drug trafficking, women are generally perceived as unwilling participants, weak victims, or bosses held up as glaring anomalies. Yet, this portrayal ignores the complex role of women in the drug trade

Machismo of course permeates drug trafficking culture, and the subjugation of women in this is rife, but there is at times a failure by the media to realize that the role of females can be more than the simple aforementioned dichotomy. Some have been coerced into the trade, while others -- driven by money, power, ambition -- have moved up the ranks like their male counterparts to plaza boss or assassin

As the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) remarked on Mexico's drug trade in 2011:

“Women today are acting as equal partners in all aspects of drug trafficking, from running crews to laundering funds, resulting in the rise of incarcerated and violently treated women.”

The idea that they are "equal partners" is somewhat of a stretch, though the piece does serve at least to draw attention to the complexity of the roles females play.

There is a flipside to the fascination with gender roles in the drug trade, though, particularly as it relates to women who gain power in criminal networks. As Professor Bruce Bagley told The Guardian about Griselda Blanco: “The danger is she will be remembered not for her cold-heartedness and brutality but for being a woman entrepreneur in an emerging field dominated by men.”

Select newsletters to receive