Many female migrants from Mexico to the U.S. have been displaced by violence, often linked to organized crime, with Mexican women targeted by sex traffickers, gender-based killings, and often recruited by criminal gangs themselves.

A recent press release from womens’ advocacy group REDGE said that most female migrants from Mexico to the U.S. are escaping violence and insecurity. The organization said this was a bigger driver of illegal migration by Mexican females than the more commonly cited motivation of joining their male relatives or partners in the U.S.

The drug conflict currently engulfing Mexico hits women in a number of ways. One is the phenomenon of “femicide;” gender-based killings of women, which seem to accompany more generalized drug violence. The most well-known example is Ciudad Juarez, a hub for the drug trade, located on the U.S. border, where hundreds or even thousands of women have been found dead and sometimes mutilated in apparently gender-based crimes in the last 20 years. The reasons for these killings are often unclear, but they are often described as linked to the general atmosphere of violence and impunity, as well as the macho culture around the drug trade in the city. The situation has not improved in Juarez -- the state of Chihuahua, where it is located, reportedly saw a record number of women murdered in 2010, with some 370 killings. The state has already seen 222 murders of women so far in 2011.

Another threat to women is posed by sex trafficking. As InSight Crime has highlighted, drug trafficking organizations in Mexico have increasingly turned to this trade as an alternative revenue source in the wake of government crackdowns on the drug trade. This has resulted in an increase in the number of disappeared women and girls, a significant proportion of whom are believed to have been kidnapped by criminal groups for this purpose.

Female illegal migrants constitute particularly easy targets for sex trafficking and sexual assaults by these gangs. As undocumented migrants, they are already far less likely to be reported as missing, and less likely to report violence or abuse to the authorities. This makes the illegal crossing into the U.S., already a dangerous undertaking, even more perilous for women migrants than for their male counterparts, as their gender means they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Women can be the perpetrators, as well as the victims, of organized crime. A recent report in the New York Times noted that there had been a 400 percent increase in the number of women incarcerated for federal crimes in Mexico since 2007 -- this covers most activity linked to organized crime. The newspaper noted that increasing numbers of women actively participate in these criminal organizations, acting as drug mules, as “honeytraps” in kidnapping operations, and even as assassins. The tasks carried out by many of these individuals seem to play on the traditional image of women in Mexican society, exploiting the fact that they are more likely to be assumed to be innocent (useful for drug smuggling) or otherwise using their beauty as bait to lure men.

Equally, it seems that a grey area has evolved between victim and participants, as the New York Times points out. It is not always clear to what extent the women participating in organized criminal groups do so out of free will, or as the result of having been forcibly recruited or tricked by drug gangs, as some claim.

In any case, what has become clear is that women are by no means bystanders to the violence in Mexico, and that, whether chosen or not, many are directly caught up in the drug war.

Investigations

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