CULIACAN, MEXICO — In the story making the rounds here in Mexico's drug capital, the setting is a beauty parlor. A woman with wealth obtained legally openly criticizes a younger patron who is married to a trafficker. The "narco-wife" orders the hairdresser to shave the first woman's head. Terrified, the hairdresser complies.
Urban legend or real? It almost doesn't matter; it's the sort of widely repeated account that both intimidates and titillates. And it highlights a disturbing trend: As drug violence seeps deeper into Mexican society, women are taking a more hands-on role.
In growing numbers, they are being recruited into the ranks of drug smugglers, dealers and foot soldiers. And in growing numbers, they are being jailed, and killed, for their efforts.
Here in Sinaloa, the nation's oldest drug-producing region and home to its most powerful cartel, the wives of drug lords were long viewed as trophies with rhinestone-studded fingernails and endless surgical enhancements.
Now wives -- and mothers and daughters -- are being used by male traffickers because women can more easily pass through the military checkpoints that have popped up along many drug-transport routes.
As Mexico has become a nation that also consumes drugs, women have become addicts, which sucks them into the narcotics underworld.
Mexico's worst economic crisis since World War II is also helping to fuel the trend; for desperate women, dealing and smuggling are often seen as a more "dignified" job than prostitution, said Pedro Cardenas, a Sinaloa state public security official in charge of prisons.
Drug violence that preys on women, in a patriarchal, macho society such as that of Sinaloa, has become an urgent problem in the last year, which has seen more killings than ever before, said Margarita Urias, head of the Sinaloa Institute for Women.
The trend could ultimately pose a threat to the stability of family structures in Mexico, a country where the woman is usually the glue holding a family together.
"It is a social cancer contaminating women who weren't touched before," Urias said.
"When we are so vulnerable, how do we educate and bring up our children? When insecurity overwhelms us, how do we inject values into our homes? How can we remain immune?"
He's free, she's not
Veronica Vasquez curses her drug-smuggling husband.
He wasn't at home the night the army came calling. She didn't have time to dispose of the bags of cocaine he had hidden in the bedroom. Now she's serving five years in the crowded prison in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, and he's still free.
"I am paying for his crime," said Vasquez, 32. "But I knew what he was doing."
Vasquez, who has two children, lost not just her freedom but all the trappings of the good life she enjoyed. The jewelry and designer handbags and fancy sunglasses, all within easy grasp without really having to work very hard.
"It is all gone," she said. As for her husband: "He is dead to me."
Carmen Elizalde was caught transporting 220 pounds of cocaine from Panama to Mexico. Nabbed on the Honduran border with Guatemala and sentenced to 18 years in prison, she says the deal was her husband's doing. She'd been duped, she said, into going along on what he portrayed as a vacation in Panama. But she didn't ask many questions either.
"Truth is, I didn't want to examine his activities," said Elizalde, 49, a mother of two with a smooth, plump face and perfectly arched eyebrows. "He was giving us a good life, and I didn't care where the money came from."
Mirna Cartagena blames no one but herself. She wanted the quick, easy money. For $1,000, all she had to do was put about 7 pounds of cocaine in her suitcase and board a bus from Culiacan to Mexicali, a city that sits on the border with California. Police pulled her from the bus about halfway along the route, and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
"It was a matter of necessity and ignorance, of not thinking of alternatives," Cartagena, 31, said with a toss of her long, curly hair, peering from behind sunglasses.
Nearly a quarter of the inmates in the Culiacan prison are female; nationally, it's 5%. The most dramatic change is the type of conviction. A decade ago, the vast majority of women in prison were there for theft or "crimes of passion," such as the killing of a spouse or lover.
Today the statistics have been turned upside down: The majority are incarcerated for crimes related to drug trafficking, Cardenas said, and 80% of first-time inmates are addicts or users.
In the bloody battles to dominate the drug trade, the traditional codes among traffickers that left families untouched have largely broken down. Being a narco-wife is not the armor it once was.
Maria Jose Gonzalez seemed to have everything going for her. Her curvaceous looks won the crown at the Sun Festival beauty pageant. She had a budding career as a singer with hopes of a recording deal. And she must have had some smarts too, because she had studied law.