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The powerful women behind drug trafficking in Latin America

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You've likely heard of men like Pablo Escobar or Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, some of Latin America's most notorious drug trafficking kingpins. But what you probably have not heard are names like Sebastiana Cotton Vasquez or the sisters Marixa and Mayra Lemus. According to journalist Deborah Bonello, these are just some of the women who are or have been at the helm of Latin America's cocaine trafficking routes. Their stories have been largely unknown outside their areas of influence until now.

Deborah Bonello is Latin America bureau chief for Vice News World. In a new investigative series, she goes deep into the world of these female bosses, also known as Las Patronas. Bonello has been reporting and researching the drug trade in Latin America for almost 15 years, and she's with us now from Mexico City to tell us more about her reporting and the series.

Deborah Bonello, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

DEBORAH BONELLO: Of course, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, I hate to start with fiction, but people might be familiar with some of the entertainment vehicles that have put female drug bosses at the center. I'm thinking about the series on USA Network, "Queen Of The South." But this isn't fiction. How did you become aware of these women?

BONELLO: Well, as you said, Michel, I've been covering the drug trade here for about 15 years. And one of the trials we covered extensively was of - obviously that of Chapo Guzman. And I noticed one day that there was a woman on his indictment and, of course, started looking into her straight away and reading her charge sheet. She was immensely powerful, and she's, in fact, one of the women that I cover in the series called Guadalupe Fernandez Valencia.

And after I found Lupe, I started speaking to lawyers and other people who were close to the cases and started finding out about all these other women who were fundamental parts of very powerful, very violent trafficking - drug trafficking organizations. And my curiosity just got piqued because after covering the trade for so long, there was so little information about the women in the trade. And all of them were mostly, you know, very attractive wives or girlfriends or victims, you know, trafficking mules or drug mules. I was just fascinated by those new narratives. And it also made sense to me that as we see women sort of move up into more powerful positions in the legal professional world that it would be happening in the criminal underworld, too.

MARTIN: So talk a little bit more about that, if you would. Is the stereotype that these women are invariably victims and not actors themselves with their own agency and motivation and so forth? Talk a little bit more about the difference between the stereotype that you think people have and what you actually found out.

BONELLO: Yeah. I mean, even today, one of the most high-profile women in organized crime is probably Emma Coronel, who was Chapo's wife and was very present at his trial and subsequently was - you know, handed herself in and pleaded guilty. And she, in a way, kind of epitomizes this image we have of women in the trade. You know, she's good looking. She's very loyal to her husband, outspoken. But she was actually the least powerful women of the powerful women in the Sinaloa drug cartel. You know, Guadalupe has - she managed all the logistics and the money laundering, and she worked hand in hand with one of Chapo's sons.

And I think the coverage of women in organized crime sort of lends itself to this idea that women have to be attractive and bombastic and, you know, either that or sort of terribly put upon or abused. And I don't really know where that comes from. I think, you know, if you look at all the high-profile drug traffickers in the history of time, they are almost by definition male. And I think that in part, it's outdated because it's so difficult to document those changes and the rise of women in that shady world. But I also think it's due to the fact that most of the coverage of organized crime is done by men. I mean, I think we come to our work with our lenses.

And speaking to academics, the few academics who have looked into this issue as well - I'm thinking of Felia Allum, who's at Bath University. She's very much looked into the role of women in the Italian mafia and found that the existing picture was really only half the picture until you started to turn the light on women. Like, I'm not necessarily talking about the girl version of the drug wars or an equivalent to - you know, a female equivalent to Chapo Guzman. We're really looking at where women are in the ranks of organized crime and the kind of roles that they play. And I definitely found that they're now present at really all levels of drug trafficking organizations.

MARTIN: We learn about some fascinating figures in reading your series. And we also learn a lot, I think, about the way the drug trade really works that I think a lot of people may not have drilled down on. I mean, there was just some fascinating video, for example, of, like, all of the cargo trucks kind of lined up to cross the border, which really kind of fascinated me. But more broadly, what do you think it adds to focus on these women?

BONELLO: I mean, I think it just - it shows, I think, how criminal organizations and legal organizations perhaps aren't as different as we like to think. And this idea of machismo that exists in Latin America is perhaps - I mean, I wouldn't say it's ending by any means, but I just don't think it's as black and white as we perceive it to be. And I think it also sort of raises questions around the dynamics between men and women generally and how we perceive these things playing out.

And the issue of agency, too, I think, is fascinating, the fact that there are women who want to succeed. And they have ambition, and they want to be respected. And for some of them, the drug trade is where they found that fulfillment. But, you know, what if they could find that in some other environment or some other market? You know there are opportunities there to harness, perhaps, those instincts. So, yeah, I mean, I think we learn all sorts of things and how little understanding we really have of the panorama of, you know, organized crime today. And I'm fascinated by that still.

MARTIN: That was Deborah Bonello, Latin America bureau chief for Vice World News. Her series on Las Patronas is online now. Deborah Bonello, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your reporting with us.

BONELLO: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It was lovely speaking to you about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.