University professor Arturo Santamaria wrote a book entitled “Female Bosses of Narco-Traffic”. A scandalous book, purportedly, a book about drugs and power – and women in the Mexican drug cartels; about the vast losses of life that occur as a result of clashes within and between the cartels (approximately 50,000 individuals since 2006); and the meaning of these losses of life for the women left behind.
Of course it’s the women who remain. How many drug-related movies about the corrupt under-belly of Mexican life have you seen? Or maybe that’s irrelevant. Even if you’ve never seen the movies, read the books, or devoted one second’s worth of thought to the industry, you know that it’s the brothers and the fathers and the husbands who front the exchanges and cop the bullets. They’re swarthy and they dress either all in immaculate black, or they sport moustaches and dirty wife-beaters, and the women are part of the plot only when they discover bodies. And weep at funerals.
According to the myriad of articles that the release of this book spawned, women, up until recently, were involved in the activities of the cartels only in so far as they participated in the removal of the heroin from the poppy heads. Because they had gentle hands. Small hands, soft hands, for bathing children and preparing food, and braiding hair. Bandaging wounds, bathing the foreheads of their men.
But now the men are dead. And now that the women have thrown the poppy heads upon their graves, the cartels are at a loss, because the heroin isn’t going to sell itself, now is it?
The problem I have with these stories – and I restrict the blame to the colour of the reporting, rather than the text itself – is the way this new story is being told. As if it’s some kind of sweeping wave of feminism, as sisters and wives clasp hands and stand high upon the fallen bodies of their male counterparts, and thrive. As if the rise of women within drug cartels is something to celebrate, as if Mexican women are suddenly proving their strength and ability and worth.
All it really is sad. This is a story about drugs, not about feminist triumph. This is a tale of the corruption and weakness of the human spirit. We should take it as a cautionary tale of how quickly we might fall, rather than a celebration of rising.
And if you’ve read the articles, it’s pretty clear that the press of the world isn’t just celebrating the strength of the women involved, because god forbid a woman might just be savvy and cunning and blood-thirsty. Instead, the photographs that accompany these articles are of round-breasted women with round dark eyes. There’s no condemnation evident in the chosen visuals, only a silent celebration of the sexy criminal. It’s Cat-Woman, it’s Irene Adler, Sucker Punch, Kill Bill. One of the most widely cited names is Sandra Avila Beltran, indicted in 2007 for her leading role in the cartels. Her epithet? “Beauty”. Her story is an astounding one, and her direct involvement in the cartels commenced only upon the murder of two husbands, and the kidnap of her son. It took thirty American agents four years to find and arrest her, during which time she laundered billions of dollars worth of drug money. But rather than identifying her by her struggle and activity, she is distinguished by her face.
Practically, what the rise of women within these cartels means for the families involved is death, more death. It means children without mothers, as well as fathers. The articles like to cite that women are less likely to administer fatal violence, but this generalized sexism has yet to prove that the presence of women within the administration of heroin means that each poppy-head will be delivered along with a hand-written thank-you note and a recipe for brownies.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of celebrating any and all instances of female empowerment. But the glorification of a dark and awful underworld, and a barely-veiled celebration of the death of thousands of male participants is not what should bear the focus of these revelations. If these articles questioned these deaths, rather than congratulating the successors, then perhaps the women in question – strong, dangerous, powerful – might find their own place in the world, rather than merely defending the empires of those who fell before.