02.25.10

Lingerie Drug Lord

This week's arrest of a model-turned-drug-queen spotlights a new breed of female narcas who use their sex appeal to traffic illegal substances and charm their way to the top of drug cartels.

A lingerie model’s bid to become the drug-running queenpin of South America seems doomed now that an international warrant has been issued for her arrest. Angie Sanselmente Valencia is a gorgeous 30-year-old brunette who set out to establish herself as the leader of a cartel that would use models and beauty queens to run drugs from South America to Europe. But she was a little too confident in her looks, and those of her underlings. Now, that hubris might lead to the dismantling of her fledging cartel, as the Argentine police claim to be hot on her tracks.

Using beauty and charm to gain power is the most common strategy for women who wish to succeed in the drug-running business. Mexico’s queenpins are famous for spending lavish amounts of money on plastic surgery, and the drug cartels have long been known to recruit beauty-pageant contestants to transport illegal substances. Pretty girls, the drug lords believe, are less likely to draw suspicion from customs inspectors.

The 21-year-old woman had more than 120 pounds of cocaine inside her suitcase—she had not even bothered to hide, because she apparently bought into her boss’s assurance that beautiful women don’t get in trouble.

Sanselmente started out as a model in her native Colombia, where her participation in a well-known pageant—the “Coffee Queen” contest—might have led to her introduction to key players in the country’s cocaine trade. International media have reported that she won that pageant at age 20, but a local news site is now claiming that she was stripped of the crown because the authorities found out that she was not a virgin. Sanselmente was married at the time, but she had kept it a secret because pageant rules banned the participation of married women—the rule was apparently in place because marriage “presupposes that [the contestant] has had sexual relations.”

The Coffee Queen scandal embarrassed Sanselmente, but it also got her the publicity she needed to launch a successful career. And her newly found bad-girl image probably made her even more appealing to the Colombian drug mafia. She eventually made her way to Mexico, where she met the leader of a cartel known as “The Monster”—one of the many smaller-scale operations that have taken control of the Mexican drug trade since the recent dismantling of the big cartels that dominated in the 1980s and '90s.

The escalation of the drug war in Mexico in recent years, and the much-heralded arrests of some of the country’s leading kingpins, has failed miserably at stemming the flow of narcotics into the U.S. and Europe. The weakening of old powerhouses such as the Arellano-Felix Organization has done nothing to curb the drug trade or decrease violence. Instead, it has resulted in the rise of smaller, tightly run operations that have proven all but impossible to contain. The turf wars among these gangs have proven deadlier to innocent civilians than anything seen in the era of the big cartels, and the violence is quickly spreading throughout Mexico and into Central America.

The splintering of the old cartels has also made it possible for anyone with enough ambition to get to the top. Women, who were once limited to being trophy wives or drug mules, now have the opportunity to climb the power ladder. Many, such as Blanca Cázares Salazar, aka “La Emperatriz” (“the Empress”), are now said to be lieutenants in the larger operations, running the finances of multimillion-dollar businesses. Some have even become the stuff of legend. Take the case of Sandra Ávila Beltrán, the “Queen of the Pacific.” She was captured in 2007 in Mexico City, but by then her name had become synonymous with machine guns and bloodbaths. She has even had popular songs written about her exploits.

It is not surprising, then, that Sanselmente eventually grew tired of simply being a drug lord’s girl. She wanted to be in charge herself. So, after she got the know-how she thought she needed from the head of “The Monster,” the Colombian beauty packed for Buenos Aires, where she thought she could settle and eventually take over the European market. Her plan was simple: She would hire beauty queens and models to fly cocaine from Argentina to Europe; she called her minions “angels,” and was under the belief that their looks would allow them to just breeze through customs and security at airports around the world.

Sanselmente offered her drug runners $5,000 per trip, and assured them that they would never be caught. And the scheme worked, apparently, for a few months. Unfortunately for the queenpin, one of her “angels” was caught in December at Ezeiza Airport, near Buenos Aires. The 21-year-old woman had more than 120 pounds of cocaine inside her suitcase—she had not even bothered to hide, because she apparently bought into her boss’s assurance that beautiful women don’t get in trouble. Argentine police quickly arrested three others connected with the operation, including Sanselmente’s new boyfriend, but the queenpin herself eluded them. It is not certain now whether she even remains in the country.

Little else is known, at this stage, about Sanselmente and the extent of her operation. But she is a perfect example of the new kind of “ narca.” These are ambitious, beautiful women whose looks differ from those of old-school gangsters, but whose greed and thirst for power are just the same.

Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.