“The army has evidence that women have begun to occupy important positions inside the Gulf Cartel; in [Reynosa] they have begun to obtain information that not only is the number of women who are dedicated to assassinations rising, but they have also gone from managing safe houses and administering funds to carrying out intricate operations for the purchase and smuggling of drugs and undocumented immigrants …The Gulf Cartel has bet on women to come and fortify an organization that has been worn down by casualties suffered in confrontations with the Zetas.”
Despite being one of the most powerful groups in Mexico over the past two decades, more than two years of warfare with the Zetas, their one-time enforcer arm, along with the arrest of a number of leading figures, have rendered the group a shell of its former self. As InSight Crime reported last month, of the men who led the group at its height in the early 2000s, the only remaining figure is Eduardo Costilla, alias “El Coss”. Yet Reynosa, a Tamaulipas town of some 600,000 people across of the border from McAllen, Texas, remains a Gulf Cartel stronghold in the group’s dwindling swatch of territory in northeastern Mexico.
While often overlooked, women playing a role in organized crime groups is nothing new in Mexico. As InSight Crime has noted, the number of women working in the drug trade is estimated to have grown by 400 percent between 2007 and 2010. This includes a number of now-notorious figures, principal among them Sandra Avila, who earned notoriety as the “Queen of the Pacific” following her arrest in 2007 accused of drug trafficking. Many of the initial charges were subsequently dismissed, though she remains in jail on money laundering charges, and an extradition request from the US is pending.
The idea of an all-powerful female criminal boss has spilled out into Mexican popular culture as well. “La Reina del Sur,” a novel about a Sinaloa women forced to flee her homeland, who subsequently sets herself up as a major trafficker in southern Spain, is among the most popular recent pieces of crime lit, and was spun off into a telenovela with longtime star Kate del Castillo. Scores of “narcocorridos” (drug ballads) have been written about leading females in the drug trade, and a handful of non-fiction accounts of their exploits have appeared on the shelves of Mexican book stores.
In most cases the role of women is portrayed as secondary, and their involvement comes across as isolated cases of happenstance — Avila, for instance, married her way into the drug trade — rather than as part of a broader strategy. In Reynosa, however, the women are not mere add-ons, but, according to Excelsior, central figures.
Insofar as the use of women is a shift forced upon the Gulf Cartel by difficult circumstances, it demonstrates the group’s weakening. If Gulf leaders have been forced to turn to women, who they consider less effective, because they could not maintain their operation otherwise, this is an indication of a group that may be in its last days.
Such a lack of access to manpower could well have been provoked by the Zetas’ success in identifying Gulf reinforcements sent from elsewhere in the country; their efforts to wipe out these fighters have been blamed from the mass disappearance of bus passengers in Tamaulipas in recent years.
An alternative interpretation, however, is that the Mexican gangs’ failure to integrate women into their organizations represents a needless and limiting oversight. Just as legitimate multinational corporations have benefited from the influx of women into their boardrooms, so too could smuggling organizations increase their efficiency by no longer ignoring half the population.