Media representations of women caught up Mexico’s drug conflict are often two-dimensional, resorting to the dichotomy of portraying women either as helpless victims or powerful “drug queens.”

By now it is a familiar narrative: women are uniquely victimized in  Mexico's male-dominated drug war, frequently targeted in revenge killings or the subjects of sexual exploitation. Since February 2008, the Mexican government’s special task force on violence against women estimates that there have been more than 1,500 cases of missing females, one third of which have not yet been solved. Many of these victims are young women, who are coerced into sex trafficking or working as drug mules. Recently, the Regional Coalition Against Trafficking of Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean estimated that some 800 girls between the ages of 12 and 16 have disappeared since 2008.

Alongside this runs another narrative, that of the powerful woman at the head of a drug cartel. The press salivates over the stories of high-profile criminals like Sandra Avila (see photo), the “Queen of the Pacific,” who was arrested in September 2007 for allegedly serving as a key link between the Sinaloa Cartel and Colombia's Norte del Valle Cartel. Newsweek magazine referred to her as Mexico’s “Underworld Queenpin,” while ABC called her the “Glamorous Gangster” of Mexico.

But the emphasis on Avila’s power is overstated. In reality, she owes much of her prominence to family ties and romantic connections with influential men. Her uncle is Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias "El Padrino," (The Godfather), who was a member of the first generation of Sinaloan drug traffickers. Both of her husbands were corrupt police commanders, and both ended up being assassinated. Since then, Avila has been in a romantic relationship with Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias "El Mayo," and Colombian trafficker Juan Diego Espinoza Ramirez, who worked with the Sinaloa Cartel to establish a network of suppliers in Colombia. It is worth questioning just how much of her influence was simply a product of the company she kept.

The same can be said for another celebrated Mexican drug queen, the Tijuana Cartel's Enedina Arellano Felix. Despite being hailed as the first female chief of a major drug trafficking organization in Mexico, she only became involved in the cartel’s leadership after her brothers were all killed or arrested. What’s more, Enedina’s role is still secondary compared to that of her son, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias "El Ingeniero."

Likewise, many women hold an ambiguous position on the line separating victim from victimizer. Sometimes females are drafted into the frontline of the drug conflict, as in the case of four teenage “assassins in training” that authorities captured at a Zetas training camp last June. There is evidence to suggest that this is on the rise. According to the National Women's Institute (INMUJERES), the number of females convicted in connection to the drug trade rose 400 percent between 2007 and 2010.

Some of these women hold mid-level leadership positions in Mexico's underworld. Just three months ago police arrested Mireya Moreno Carreon, alias "La Flaca," who had been working as the chief of the Zetas’ "plaza," or drug trafficking hub, of San Nicolas de los Garza, outside Monterrey. And Moreno is not alone; according to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office, officials are offering a reward for information on the whereabouts of 14 women who are currently plaza chiefs, hit squad bosses and kidnapping ring leaders across the country. Two of these women, Elizabeth Garza and Elvira Arroyo, are wanted by officials in the United States for their role as large-scale drug traffickers. Garza is on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of the 15 most wanted criminals worldwide.

These cases raise various questions about the nature of female empowerment in the drug trade. Do female drug lords, like their counterparts in the similarly male-dominated field of politics, find that in order to break the glass ceiling they must adopt the “iron lady” persona, portraying themselves as cold and asexual in order to command respect? Or do they more frequently adopt the apparent strategy of Sandra Avila, using their sexuality as a means to gain power over men? While studying the phenomenon often raises more questions than answers, it is clear is that restricting women to the twin categories of victim or powerful capo overlooks the ambiguities of their roles in Mexico's criminal underworld.