The recent arrest in Honduras of Herlinda Bobadilla provoked many questions about who this 61-year-old woman was, who had allegedly become the leader of one of the main drug cartels in Central America.
Very little was publicly known about “la Chinda”, despite being considered the head of a clan that is accused of shipping tons of cocaine through links with Mexican and Colombian cartels to the United States, a country that even offered a US $5 million reward. for information leading to his capture.
Her story, like that of many high-ranking women drug traffickers in Latin American cartels, goes much more unnoticed by the world and, sometimes, even for the authorities themselvesathey investigate.
The role of women in organized crime is generally presented to public opinion as that of the partner or relative of the drug leader who really controls the business. Or as a person who almost involuntarily and compulsorily inherits that task once the man is arrested.
But is it always like this? What are the real roles of women in organized crime? Is so little really known about them because they occupy positions of lesser power, or are other factors at play? Who are these little-known women?
BBC Mundo interviewed on this subject to Deborah Bonello, Maltese-British journalist who has lived in Latin America for almost 20 years and investigates organized crime in the region.
In the last four years, her work has focused on learning more about the role of women in these groups, which resulted in an extensive report published in October on the VICE website under the title “Las patronas: la historia secreta of the cartel bosses in Latin America” and that next year will see the light as a book.
Why did you decide to investigate the role of women in organized crime?
I have always covered the subject as a journalist since I arrived in Mexico 15 years ago. However, I saw that the narratives about women on the subject were very scarce and that for years they have been limited in organized crime as wives, girlfriends, victims, forced to commit crimes…
They are false stereotypes that we have about gender and that, although in these years we have seen an opening on the image of women, in the field of organized crime it has remained in the shadows.
What do you think is the reason for this stereotyped perception?
The majority of journalists who work on these issues are men. And I don’t want to sound critical, but obviously we all wear our glasses.
I feel that, in general, the man arrives with an idea of who is in charge of these groups and what the power structures are like, so they hardly include women in the investigations.
Or we also see it in the headlines, as in the case of “la Narcomami” [para referirse a Enedina Arellano Félix, quien llegó a ser jefa del cartel de Tijuana]. You will never call Chapo [exlíder del cartel de Sinaloa] “drug daddy”, right?
Are we wrong then about the roles that women play in these groups?
Criminal intent is not exclusive to men, they have the same ability to handle firearms and to be perpetrators of crimes.
But women are always portrayed as victims, as if we did it because the husband forced us. Which, as I researched, sounded more like the world’s desire to see women like this.
There is a very strong clash in Latin America, and in Mexico in particular, between that classic image of “mama” and that of a woman who is killing and cheating. It’s like they don’t want to see that part of the woman because it’s hard for them, and I understand that. By definition, the drug trafficker is male, and the examples we see in the media confirm that idea.
Are their motivations for delving into crime different from those of men?
I don’t know why there is this idea that women don’t want power and status. That is a myth.
Just like men, women dedicate themselves to this because they want power, money… Many told me that they liked the adrenaline that comes when one takes the risk of getting into this world. Few do it because they had a gun to their heads.
In the areas where they lived, in a super macho culture where they have even more challenges to succeed, violence is how one earns respect.
It is in those environments where some jump the expectations that are placed on them and fight to dominate people, as they have seen men do for years.
Some experts maintain that some women take up these positions once their husbands are detained and given the idea that they do not know how to do anything else to get ahead.
Of some we must remember that they lived in areas of Central America with a lot of poverty and where the flow of cocaine is constant, so it is a great temptation for them as a business of “easy money” compared to what they could earn working all their lives in another stuff.
So yes, some of these women wanted to raise their children, but they also wanted a car and luxuries.
Several were from the middle class, Luz Fajardo was studying Law… They were not women with such limited resources and no other option than to join the narco. They did it because they wanted to, it was not an obligation. If you really don’t want to get into this, look for something else.
What was the hardest thing about researching their stories?
First, there is very little information about them, so I almost had to start from scratch.
Second, that most of them are in prisons in the United States or in the process of staying in that country. That is why they do not want to talk, because if they are, for example, in the process of becoming a resident, the immigration judge is not going to see well that they talk to journalists about their career, it would seem that they would be proud.
So few of them talked to me, so I had to do a lot of searching through court documents, travel [a sus lugares de origen] to chat with acquaintances and relatives…
Many people will think that, if there is not so much information about them, it will be because they were not so important within the cartels…
I think the point is not whether there is a female version of El Chapo: a woman who was so powerful in organized crime would have a different kind of power. And if she did, we probably wouldn’t know because the media doesn’t want to see it.
For example, the highest-ranking woman in the Sinaloa cartel was Guadalupe Fernández Valencia, who handled all logistics and was involved at the highest level. She was a key player during the Chapo trial, but if you search the internet you will hardly find any information about her case.
I have no doubt that there are women in all ranks of the cartels, but they are more hidden because the violence of men is much more visible.
Does that benefit them? Do they prefer to remain more anonymous than men?
A woman who kills and is violent attracts a lot of attention. They sexualize them, their violence is exaggerated for going beyond those gender limits and stereotypes that we have about what women are capable of doing.
But I think people don’t understand how many women are capable of it and are involved in contract killings.
The police themselves, in general, are not usually so suspicious of women. Researchers prioritize men because they are more famous for being violent. So, they take advantage of that and keep a low profile, because they know that it is not convenient for them to have the fame of El Chapo.
If you want to operate and manage your business, it is not for you.
Why did you choose these six women for your research published last year?
There are other powerful women in the region like Enedina or Griselda Blanco, about whom much has already been written, so I didn’t want to repeat myself.
In addition, I wanted to choose more contemporary women, since I understand the narco of the 90s and 2000s better than that of the 70s and 80s.
There are many others, but I wanted to focus on a few to deepen and further develop their stories. I also chose them thinking about whether their close people would tell me about them and I could get information.
And I think it’s easier when they are in jail or belonged to an organization that has already been dismantled. All this influenced me when choosing these six women.
These are the profiles of the 6 women drug lords investigated by Bonello.
Dignified Valley (Honduras)
In El Espiritu, a small town in Copan in northeastern Honduras, Worthy Valley She was the matriarch of drug trafficking in the area and the main face of the brutal Los Valle cartel. Her family changed the smuggling of cows and cigarettes for drug trafficking of Colombian cocaine that began circulating in the area at the end of the last century destined for the United States.
Valle, the oldest of 13 siblings, moved tens of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine a month across the nearby Guatemalan border as a middleman for other organizations like Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Own Chapo Guzman He visited El Espiritu several times.
During the trial against Tony Hernandezthe brother of the former Honduran president John Orlando Hernandez, recently deported to the US for drug trafficking, a witness assured that Chapo financed part of Juan Orlando’s presidential campaign in exchange for protection for the Valles. Some of the brothers are accused of having kidnapped and gang-raped young peasant girls.
After being arrested on a trip to Miami in 2014, Digna Valle pleaded guilty to drug charges. She collaborated with the justice system and her information was vital for the arrest and extradition to the US of two of her brothers, also convicted, for which it was key to the dismantling of her own clan.
After serving his sentence, he was granted the right to remain in the US at the risk to his life if he returned to his country.
“When I went to El Espíritu, I spoke briefly with Digna via video call and she told me that she was not afraid to return to Honduras. At her time, she worked so publicly because she thought she was untouchable and she felt protected by the authorities. That arrogance is not just a man thing,” says Bonello.
Marixa Lemus (Guatemala)
Marixa Lemus, 40, is known as “the Patron” or “El Chapo de Guatemala” for the two occasions in which he managed to escape from prison. In 2016 she jumped a prison wall and was arrested within hours.
A year later she did it again from a military prison, dressed in a security guard uniform. Two weeks later, she was arrested in El Salvador.
His drug empire was built in the vicinity of Moyuta, a Guatemalan municipality on the border with El Salvador that is a strategic point in the drug route that circulates through Central America to the US.
His family, known for its violent and bloody ways, had great power in local politics and control of the territory to traffic.
His brother was mayor of Moyuta until he died of a heart attack. In 2011, her sister Mayra was assassinated along with seven other people a few months before she was to stand for the same position in the elections. Before, she had survived another attack in which she died Jennifer, Marixa’s 17-year-old daughter.
She accuses her rival and winner of the elections of being behind the murders of her relatives. He blames Marixa for having tried to kill him on several occasions. In 2014 she was arrested for kidnapping and murder. After her two escape attempts, she continues to serve her sentence.
“I interviewed Marixa in prison. She impressed me with her character, her capacity for violence and how she didn’t hide it. He told me that he was going to take revenge on her rival, for her and for her entire family that he took from her, ”recalls Bonello.
Sebastiana Cotton Vasquez (Guatemala)
Sebastiana Cottón Vásquez lived her early years as a poor peasant with little formal education in the town of Malacatán, on the Guatemala-Mexico border, another strategic point for international drug trafficking.
But this did not prevent it from being considered one of the most violent bosses drug trafficker in his country.
After being abandoned by the father of her five children, she married a local drug dealer. When he was murdered, she took over the business until she became the architect of the trafficking of thousands of kilos of cocaine.
“La Tana” was a partner of the Lorenzana brothers, one of the most powerful drug traffickers in Guatemala at the time. Your contacts at the border They were key to transporting the brothers’ drugs to Mexico, from whom he also bought merchandise.
Cottón had connections to the Digna Valle cartel in Honduras and worked with the Sinaloa del Chapo cartel.
In 2014, she was extradited to the US, where she pleaded guilty. Collaborating with the justice system and testifying against the Lorenzanas in the trial organized against them helped him reduce her sentence until she was released in 2019.
“I interviewed acquaintances of Sebastiana and they were very afraid of her. She is a woman with an impressive character. With hardly any companions from her, she went to claim for a drug that had been stolen from the house of one of the Lorenzanas, where she was surrounded by about a hundred armed men. She was the only woman there. To do that you have to have a lot of courage… or stupidity. Or both”, reflects Bonello.
Marllory Chacon Rossell (Guatemala)
That of Marllory Chacón was another of the key statements in the Lorenzana trial so that they were sentenced for life. He had his first cooperation meeting with them in 2004, when he needed help in his first big business of drugs: passing a ton of cocaine from the border with Honduras.
Although she had family in a rural area of Chiquimula, Guatemala, Chacón – nicknamed “The Queen of the South”– was rather a middle-class young woman who studied psychology for several years, intelligent and with business skills.
Before getting involved in drug trafficking, she stood out as a skilled money launderer. Years later, she laundered US$10 million in drug trafficking profits a month, according to the US indictment. She operated from Guatemala, but had connections to drug trafficking in Honduras and Panama, and supplied cocaine to cartels in Mexico.
The US Treasury Department called it “one of the most prolific drug traffickers in Central America”.
Chacón became one of Sebastiana Cottón’s greatest allies, arrested in 2014. Chacón turned herself in that same year and, like her former ally, pleaded guilty and collaborated with the US justice system until she was released in 2019.
According to Bonello, “Marllory was an elegant and educated woman who moved in a world of men. The Lorenzanas were not used to negotiating with women to move and buy coca, but she got into the business because she attracted a lot of attention from everyone in this world”.
Guadalupe Fernandez Valencia (Mexico)
Despite being the highest-ranking female operative member of the Sinaloa cartel to date, little is known about Guadalupe Fernández Valencia. However, she was the only woman on the list of eight names that appeared in the list of defendants who helped send El Chapo to prison.
The Mexican spent more than three decades in the drug business. First in the US, where she arrived undocumented from her home state of Michoacán and where she was imprisoned before being deported.
Back in Mexico, he worked for the Sinaloa cartel as lieutenant to one of Chapo’s sons, Jesús Alfredo, who is still a fugitive.
Fernández Valencia worked together with “Alfredillo” throughout the drug distribution process until he was arrested in Culiacan, just one month after Chapo’s last capture in January 2016. He pleaded guilty to the charges against him and last year was sentenced to ten years in prison. She was then 61 years old.
“I was struck by the image of humility that he wanted to give in the trial, talking about their children and grandchildren. But the truth is that she worked for an organization that is brutally violent and she was okay with it, ”Bonello highlights.
“She had a lot of fang, she wasn’t naive who didn’t know where she was getting into and the level she reached in the cartel and her ability to handle logistics so well in an illegal environment is impressive.”
Luz Irene Fajardo Campos (Mexico)
Luz Fajardo Campos was a middle-class Mexican lawyer who came from a family of farmers near Cosalá, in a rural area of Sinaloa, but who decided to enter the drug business with his two sons.
He came to direct his own international drug trafficking cell that until 2016 was associated with the Sinaloa cartel, although without being part of the organization.
He was accused of importing large amounts of cocaine into the US from Colombia, passing through Central America and Mexico.
after being arrested in Colombia in 2017 and extradited to the US, the bodies of her two children appeared dismembered and charred in Mexico. It is not known if they were killed by a rival drug group or it was a wake-up call for her to remain silent in the face of justice.
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Be that as it may, the truth is that he refused to plead guilty and went to trial. Last year she was sentenced to 22 years. According to Bonello, “because of her profession and her family, she had other options but she decided to get into drug trafficking. In prison she did poorly, her lawyer says that her mental health is very bad”.
“After what happened with his children, he decided to keep his mouth shut and not give information about anyone. I wonder if Chapo also had that consideration when he testified. It is interesting that many women consider the possible consequences that their statements can have for their families [muchos familiares de Fajardo continúan viviendo en Sinaloa]”.
“Is that different than what men, who are also fathers and husbands, would do? I don’t know,” the journalist asks.
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