CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - More women are working and dying for powerful drug cartels in Mexico's most violent city as high unemployment along the U.S. border sucks desperate families into the lethal trade.
Once almost unheard of in the macho world of drug trafficking, a record 179 women have been killed by rival hitmen so far this year in Ciudad Juarez, the notorious city across from El Paso, Texas, as teenage girls and even mothers with small children sign up with the cartels, authorities say.
"They killed them, they killed them!" residents of one poor area of Ciudad Juarez shouted in June after two 15-year-old girls were shot down in a murder police blamed on drug gangs.
In August, three teenage girls were shot dead at a drug-fueled party that neighbors said lasted three days.
The involvement of women in Mexico's drug underworld underscores the challenges facing President Felipe Calderon as he struggles to reverse escalating violence and bolster an economy that cannot provide legal work for the poor.
Over 28,000 people have died in drug violence since Calderon launched his campaign against cartels in late 2006, and the bloodshed shows no sign of slowing.
In Ciudad Juarez, which became famous in the 1990s for the unsolved murders of hundreds of women, many of them factory workers, some 6,400 people have died in the last 2-1/2 years.
Calderon faces a formidable task in turning around the border city, the home to factories producing goods exported to U.S. consumers. It was once a party town for U.S. tourists but has become an eerie no-man's land gripped by gruesome attacks.
Violence is taking on a different tone there as women suspected of working for drug gangs are shot by rivals on busy streets, often in front of their children, a deviation from cartels' traditional honor codes barring attacks on women.
"Ninety percent of female homicides in Ciudad Juarez are linked to organized crime," said Patricia Gonzalez, attorney general for Chihuahua state that includes the border city. "The women are probably involved.".
Women are attractive employees for drug traffickers because they are less likely to be searched in drug raids in Mexico.
One woman who smuggled cocaine into the United States for a drug gang told Reuters she has seen girls befriend hitmen, become their lovers and eventually begin working as smugglers. Many are drawn to the status and excitement of the drug trade.
"When the boyfriends are going to kill someone, they invite the girls along as if if they were going on a trip to the mall or the cinema. It becomes totally normal to work for the cartels," said the woman, who declined to be named.
Mexico's most famous female smuggler, Sandra Avila, dubbed the "Queen of the Pacific", made headlines for her jewels and luxury cars when she was arrested in late 2007.
But many of the women working for drug gangs in Ciudad Juarez are poor. Some have been laid off from factory jobs as Mexico struggles out of its worst recession since 1932. Most are eager just to earn enough to educate their children.
Reliant on cross-border trade, Ciudad Juarez has been stung by the recession more than some other parts of Mexico. Some 75,000 manufacturing jobs were lost, and so far only have come back. Drug violence has made things worse, shuttering hundreds of bars and restaurants.
"The economy has been a major factor in why these women are selling drugs and participating with organized crime," said Imelda Marrufo, a women's activist in Ciudad Juarez.
Some women, particularly teenagers, join cartels after dropping out of notoriously underfunded schools. They meet boys at nightclubs who are already selling drugs. Some are forced into the business by family members working for cartels.
The job descriptions vary: attractive, well-dressed women sometimes smuggle drugs up to and across the U.S. border. Others sell drugs in bars in Ciudad Juarez bars or coordinate teams of hitmen, social workers and police said.
One woman known as "La Dona" ("The Lady"), who was killed last month in northern Chihuahua state, was a trafficker for Mexico's top smuggler, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who leads the Sinaloa cartel in western Mexico, police said.
Despite media reports to the contrary, police say that women generally do not work in hit squads that assassinate rivals or police. Instead, they supervise men who do.
"They tell them who to kill and when," said Aide Arellano, a social worker for Ciudad Juarez's police force. "They travel with their children so as not to look suspicious."
Yet the glamour of cartel work is fading as gangs begin to go after female drug workers without regard to their gender.
"They are killing women just like they kill the men, shooting them. These murders aren't being investigated and it exacerbates the impunity," Marrufo said.
Writing by Robin Emmott; editing by Missy Ryan and Kieran Murray