TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Challenging the stereotype of macho Mexico, women are moving into positions of power in male-dominated drug cartels but in the process suffering gruesome deaths in turf wars among traffickers.
At least 20 women drug smugglers have been killed by rival gangs so far this year, many of them suffocated with tape, compared to about 15 for all of last year, police say.
The highest-profile case is that of Enedina Arellano Felix, who now jointly runs the Tijuana cartel based across the border from California after one of her brothers, top trafficker Francisco Javier, was captured last August.
“This is a new phenomenon we are only just becoming aware of,” said a senior federal police officer who declined to be named. “We are seeing it in the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels, possibly even in the Juarez and Gulf gangs,” he said, referring to Mexico’s main trafficking organizations.
U.S. law enforcement officials say 46-year-old Enedina, an accountant, works alongside her brother Eduardo in leading the cartel, using the pseudonym Maria Cecilia Felix.
Ironically, female traffickers often get their starts in the police, before moving to the drug gangs for better money.
Corrupt female police officers have proved adept at recruiting teams of attractive, well-dressed women to smuggle drugs past border guards in the face of increased security, winning the respect of cartel leaders.
Women are unlikely to be searched during drug raids because Mexican police and army units rarely include a female team member, police say.
“Many women are also good business managers. We believe Enedina Arellano has a pharmacy and construction business,” said a former Mexican police intelligence officer who declined to be named.
Around 700 people have been killed so far in 2007 in fierce battles for control of smuggling routes that have prompted President Felipe Calderon to send thousands of troops to troubled areas.
Women are less likely to become caught up in the violence but they not immune to dying brutally. They are often killed execution-style, shot with their hands and feet tied behind their backs, or suffocated with duct tape.
Senior Tijuana policewoman Monica Ramirez, once considered one of the most promising female officers on the northern border, was killed in February by Tijuana cartel hit men after being jailed for running a smuggling cell linked to the group.
Police sources say she was shot dead in a prison hospital to keep her from informing.
Women in Mexico have long taken second place in public life but their presence has grown in recent decades in areas ranging from jobs in assembly plants to government positions as they challenge workplace sexism. Around a fifth of Mexico’s federal lawmakers are women.
In a case of life imitating art, Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte presaged the trend in the drug trade in his 2002 bestseller “Queen of the South” — a meticulously researched novel about fictional Mexican drug magnate Teresa Mendoza.
Partly set in Mexico’s Pacific state of Sinaloa — today the base of No. 1 trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — the formidable Mendoza rises out of poverty as a gang moll to become a tough, tequila-drinking drug kingpin in her own right, selling Colombian cocaine to a Russian crime gang.
“The book was prophetic,” said Victor Clark, a drug trade expert at San Diego State University. “The more active role of women is going to give a new twist to drug trafficking. It may become less violent, more businesslike,” he added.
Poverty and a lack of well-paid jobs in Mexico appear to be the main causes of the increasing female involvement in trafficking, with many women eager to swap their tin-roof shacks for a proper house and to educate their children.
“Drug trafficking brings status and excitement. It is a route out of hardship,” said Jose Maria Ramos, a security expert at the Tijuana-based research institute Colegio de la Frontera Norte.