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Women play a bigger role in Mexico's drug war

Addiction, the economy and the lure of living well have sucked many into the narcotics underworld. The trend threatens the foundations of Mexican society.

November 10, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

The 22-year-old's body was found dumped along a road on the southern edge of Culiacan last spring, near a sign that warns, "Don't throw trash." Nearby was the body of her husband, Omar Antonio Avila, a used-car salesman. She had been shot in the head; he was blindfolded and his hands handcuffed behind his back. Her eyes were open, staring skyward. She wore golden sandals.

The road where they were discovered is frequently used to dump the murder victims that haunt Culiacan. The road meanders into bushy countryside, winding around the back wall of an affluent residential community with its own man-made lake popular with people on jet skis. Wooden crosses and tiny shrines mark where bodies have appeared. The area is known as La Primavera. Springtime.

Authorities suspect that Gonzalez and her husband got mixed up with the Sinaloa cartel, members of which may have blamed them for the loss of 9 tons of marijuana in an army raid shortly before the couple were slain.

Zulema Hernandez ended up in prison on armed-robbery charges. There she met Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, who was serving out a sentence until he famously escaped in 2001 by bribing guards and hiding in a bundle of outgoing laundry.

While the two were doing time in the Puente Grande maximum-security prison outside Guadalajara, Hernandez, in her early 20s, became Guzman's mistress.

"After the first time, he sent to my cell a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of whiskey," Hernandez told Mexican author Julio Scherer for a book he wrote on prisons. "I was his queen."

She told another reporter in 2002 that she became pregnant by El Chapo but miscarried after being beaten by guards.

By the time she was released in 2003, Hernandez had apparently picked up some of her lover's tricks of the trade: She was arrested less than a year later with 2 tons of cocaine.

Lawyers supplied by El Chapo helped her file a peculiarly Mexican injunction used to stop many a prosecution, and she was free again in 2006. She quickly became the Sinaloa cartel's agent in Mexico City, authorities said, transporting cocaine into the capital's neighborhoods -- relatively new terrain for the organization.

Last December, her body was found in the trunk of a car outside Mexico City. She had been shot in the head. Carved into her breasts, stomach and buttocks was the letter Z, symbol of the notorious gang of hit men called the Zetas, archenemies of El Chapo. She was 35.

A year earlier, the fugitive Guzman had married his third wife the day she turned 18: Emma Coronel, another beauty pageant winner, who is one-third her husband's age. At one point, she was reportedly seen around Culiacan, frequenting the hair and nail salons that cater to narco-wives and other young women who emulate the style: glamorous 'dos and fingernails longer than toes, bejeweled or painted with elaborate designs or pictures of cartoon characters. More recently, she was said to be in hiding.

On average in Sinaloa this year, a woman was killed every week in what authorities believe to be gangland hits.

Two women driving on a state highway last month were intercepted by two carloads of gunmen and pulled from their vehicle as their horrified children watched. Their bullet-scarred bodies, heads wrapped in plastic bags, were found a few hours later. One was believed to be a wife of one of the Sinaloa cartel's top kingpins, Victor Emilio Cazares.

The allure persists

Despite the risks, the drug world life continues to appeal to a subset of young women, generating its own lore, especially here in Sinaloa.

Two days before Christmas, federal police arrested Miss Sinaloa, the state's reigning beauty queen, and seven men, all of whom were paraded before television cameras and accused of trafficking cocaine. A cache of high-powered weapons and tens of thousands of dollars were seized from their vehicle.

Laura Zuniga, 23, was never charged and went free after 38 days under a form of house arrest. Tagged "Miss Narco" by the Mexican media, Zuniga acknowledged that her boyfriend was the brother of a big trafficker, but she said her beau was not involved in the business, although she wasn't sure what he did for a living.

She was stripped of a title she had won in an international contest. But she remains Miss Sinaloa.

For many women, joining this life is not a matter of choice. They are press-ganged, pushed by parents seeking wealth and influence, or don't know what they're getting into, said Urias, the women's institute official. And escape is rarely an option.

A few women have managed to flee drug-trafficking husbands, and have taken refuge in a shelter whose location is a tightly held secret.

Teresita tried for four years to get away from a husband who beat her, cheated on her and partied endlessly with his drug-dealing friends.

"He was high all the time," she said in an interview at the shelter. The Times agreed not to publish her last name.

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