Queenpins of the Drug Cartels

As President Obama heads for Mexico today, he will find a country wracked not just by drug kingpins—but by a group of smart, ruthless women who have cracked the grass ceiling of the country's deadly narcotics ring.

04.16.09 5:57 AM ET

“In this country,” said Scarface, “you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, you get the women.”

Al Pacino’s character was talking about organized crime in the United States. But in Mexico City, where President Obama will travel today to confront a horrific cycle of narcotics-spurred violence, gender roles aren’t nearly as clear cut. In a culture known for its machismo, women command a startling degree of authority over the Mexican drug mafia. They run its finances, major smuggling operations, even run entire cartels.

The laundering operations run by these women don’t take place in smoke-filled billiard rooms—they manage boutiques, hotels, and beauty parlors, profitable fronts for their even more profitable illegal activities.

“I wouldn’t say that cartels are equal-opportunity employers,” says Dr. David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, “but evidence does suggest that there are spaces in cartels for women who are able to assert themselves and show their talents and abilities as operators within the cartels.”

The powerful women of the narco world are even achieving immortality in corridos—Mexican folk ballads that tell the stories of the country’s greatest heroes and most infamous villains. “All the guests arrived at the mountain party in private helicopters,” sing Los Tucanes de Tijuana. “Suddenly they heard a buzzing sound, and saw a chopper landing. The boss ordered everyone to hold their fire. Out came a beautiful lady, dressed in camo and donning a cuerno (AK-47). Everyone knew immediately who she was. She was the famous Queen of the Pacific and Its Shores, the strong lady of the business, a true heavyweight.”

The song celebrates the pouty-lipped cartel monarch Sandra Ávila Beltrán, aka “La Reina del Pacífico”—the Queen of the Pacific. Living up to her royal moniker, Beltrán maintained a high-profile presence in the posh Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco, often seen dining at upscale restaurant Chez Wok and getting her hair blown out at celebrity-frequented salons. The striking brunette is the niece of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the godfather of Mexican organized crime in the 1970s and ‘80s, whose arrest in 1989 led to the hydra of feuding cartels that are ravaging Mexico today. After her uncle was locked up, Beltrán seized the chance to become a major player in her family’s criminal aristocracy, craving power to complement her luxury lifestyle.

With her famed beauty, she seduced the drug trafficking business’ most powerful men. The mistress of such heavyweights as Colombian mobster Diego “El Tigre” Espinoza and Mexican kingpin Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, her sex appeal helped get her in the door. But it was her shrewd business acumen that allowed her to gain control of one the most coveted smuggling routes in the business: the Colombia-U.S. Pacific corridor.

Beltrán was a tabloid darling in Mexico until September 2007, when her black BMW was pulled over and she was arrested as part of President Felipe Calderón’s escalating war on drugs. She now sits in a women’s detention facility in Mexico City pending extradition to the United States. Life behind bars has not been easy for the woman accustomed to mansions and private helicopters—the former millionaire filed a complaint with the Mexican Commission on Human Rights a month after her arrest, citing bedbugs and other “noxious fauna” in her cell.

Beltrán’s capture has made her the most talked-about queenpin. Her life inspired a novel by Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte, titled “ The Queen of the South,” which is being made into a movie starring Eva Mendes, Josh Hartnett, and Ben Kingsley. But she is hardly the only woman who wields influence on the cartel circuit.

Still at large are some of the country’s most powerful female criminals, among them, Enedina Arellano Félix, head of the Tijuana Cartel. Like most high-ranking women in the drug business, Enedina started out laundering money. Keeping a low profile, she gradually established operations across California and Northwestern Mexico. She is the sister of the notorious Arellano Félix brothers, who dominated the smuggling world throughout the 1990s. Following the arrests and murders of several of her brothers, Enedina has increasingly taken the helm of their organization. Those close to her describe her as reserved, calculating, and highly intelligent.

According to Dr. Shirk, Mexican women find it easier to enter the narcotics trade through the financial side of the business because they are perceived to be better with money. Contrary to stereotypes in America, it is Mexican men who are seen as wasteful shoppers, splurging on mansions, fancy cars, and—the latest trend— exotic animals. “In a lot of Mexican households,” explains Shirk, “despite machismo, the household and its finances are run by the mother figure.” Women are also less likely to arouse suspicion, flying below the radar of law enforcement.

The laundering operations run by these women don’t take place in your typical smoke-filled billiard rooms and dive bars. They manage boutiques, hotels, and beauty parlors, many of which are profitable fronts for their even more profitable illegal activities. One woman famous for her diverse business empire is Blanca Cázares Salazar, aka “La Emperatriz” (“the Empress”). Locals describe the Empress as “a pretty little blond ranch girl who wore tight clothes and white jeans.” In 2007, she was designated a key money launderer for narcotics traffickers by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, and has been on the run ever since. Starting out as a low-level currency changer on the streets of Culiacán, Blanca is now one of the chief financial operators in the cartel run by Joaquín “Shorty” Guzmán, the billionaire kingpin.

Despite her financial success, the Empress suffered some heavy setbacks over the past year. Her husband was arrested in March 2008, and her son was murdered by mercenaries of the rival Gulf Cartel in May. Her brother, Jorge Abel Cázares Salazar, was gunned down at a volleyball game in October, and authorities are investigating whether she is related to a Bonifacio Cázares Salazar, who was found murdered execution-style last month.

In the tradition of the Sicilian capos, these women are known for being devout Catholics. The Queen’s mug shot shows her wearing a large gold crucifix, which she says is a family heirloom. And the Empress was last seen at the temple of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Culiacán on December 12, 2007, the day the U.S. government announced her indictment for money laundering. December 12th is the feast day of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. Blanca, who was famous for wearing skin-tight jeans, attended Mass in a traditional skirt and embroidered blouse. Her hair was braided with ribbons, and she smiled as photographers asked her to pose with her young granddaughters, who were dressed exactly the same as she was.

There are other women who have risen to prominence in the Mexican drug trade. These include Edith López-López, aka “La Reina del Sur” (“Queen of the South”), arrested in December 2008, and Ivonne Soto Vega, “La Pantera” (“The Panther”), who was captured last February. Yet another is Patricia Amezcua Contreras, identified by the U.S. Treasury as a “key lieutenant” of the Colima cartel, which produces methamphetamine for distribution in the United States.

Dr. Shirk points out that while the number of women in positions of power is increasing, “the narconovia phenomenon is still the more prominent role that women play in the cartels.” Narconovias are the trophy women on whom drug runners lavish expensive gifts, from ostentatious jewelry to breast implants.

Photo of Laura Zuniga by Getty Images

The most famous narconovia of recent times is perhaps Laura Zúñiga. Like Sandra Beltrán, she was a queen—a beauty queen. Crowned Miss Sinaloa 2008, she went on to win the coveted Miss Hispanic America pageant later that year. She lost it all, however, when she was arrested in December along with her boyfriend and six other suspected smugglers. They were caught with several 9-millimeter pistols, semiautomatic rifles, and over $50,000 in cash. She was charged with possession of illegal weapons, drug trafficking, and money laundering, but was released a month later due to lack of evidence.

It is not yet clear how much power women now wield within the criminal underworld. But what is certain is that it is no longer just a boys’ club. “I don’t think women are innocent, or necessarily just victims in the cartels,” says Dr. Shirk, “at least not from the patterns we’ve seen recently.”

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a writer living in Manhattan. He has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, El Diario NY and the Orange County Register.