Mexico’s Suspected Drug Queenpin

Suspected drug traffickers usually don't look quite like this. But Sandra Avila Beltrán is no run-of-the-mill narco-thug: the 46-year-old brunette was indicted in Florida three years ago on charges of conspiring to import cocaine in connection with a 9.6-ton seizure of the drug in 2001, and her arrest outside a coffee shop in a posh Mexico City neighborhood late last month made headlines because she is one of only two women listed among Mexico's leading drug traffickers. Known as the Queen of the Pacific, Avila Beltrán earned her nickname in part by allegedly helping to develop smuggling routes along Mexico's Pacific Coast for Colombia's Valle del Norte cartel as far back as the 1990s. "It's unheard of in the sense that we haven't seen a woman inside the organized crime cartels reach such an exalted position in decades," Mexico's assistant secretary for public security Patricio Patiño told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive interview. "Sandra's rise basically has to do with two circumstances: her ties to a family that has been involved in drug trafficking over three generations, and a physical beauty that made her stand out as a woman."

Family connections have certainly played a major role in the saga of Mexico's reigning drug queenpin. Officials in that country say Avila Beltrán is the niece of Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, the onetime godfather of the Mexican drug trade who is serving a 40-year sentence for the murder of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent in 1984. Her great uncle Juan José Quintero Payán was extradited to the States on drug trafficking charges in January. On her mother's side, the Beltráns got involved in heroin smuggling in the 1970s and later diversified into cocaine as the U.S. market for that drug exploded, according to Michael Vigil, a former chief of international operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Vigil, who spent 17 years investigating Mexican narcos, says Avila Beltrán never shrank from employing the violence that comes with the turf. "Sandra was very ruthless," says Vigil, who is now retired. "She used the typical intimidation tactics of Mexican organizations."

But it would be wrong to view Avila Beltrán as an isolated case. Growing numbers of women are getting involved in the male-dominated illicit narcotics industry. In Brazil, where more cocaine is consumed than anywhere else in the Americas besides the U.S., an estimated 10,000 women are doing time for drug smuggling. And not all are low-level "mules" like the title character of the award-winning 2004 movie "María Full of Grace," played by Catalina Sandino Moreno. Some of the women who have moved up the food chain are frequently given responsibility for money and accounting matters, says one expert. "Before, we [judges] assumed that the only role women play in crime was as victims," says Denise Frossard, a prominent criminal judge in Brazil and author of the recently published book "Women in the Mafia." "Now they are increasingly heading criminal operations, and drug trafficking is becoming more and more female all the time."

In a number of instances, women have been promoted to positions of greater responsibility because their husbands, brothers or boyfriends have been put out of commission by death or detention. That is true of Mexico's other prominent drug mafiosa, Enedina Arellano Félix, a distant relative of Avila Beltrán's who has allegedly taken over the reins of her family's cartel after Enedina's brother Ramón was killed in a police shootout in the Mexican port of Mazatlán five years ago and two other brothers were captured in separate incidents.

Avila Beltrán's love life was also a key factor in her allegedly meteoric ascent. In the late 1990s she became involved with Colombian trafficker Juan Diego Espinoza Ramírez and through him met Diego Montoya, the head of Colombia's Valle del Norte cartel who was arrested by the authorities in that country last month. Avila Beltrán became a kind of "transmission belt" between Montoya's syndicate and Mexican cartels based in the state of Sinaloa, on the Pacific Coast, and Ciudad Juárez, along the U.S. border, says Patiño. Avila Beltrán moved money between the two countries and organized logistics for the safe delivery of cocaine shipments from Colombia. Her underworld godfather, according to Patiño, was the formidable Sinaloa-based trafficker Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García, who was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington four years ago on charges of conspiring to import and distribute 2,796 kilos of cocaine with an estimated value of $47.4 million. Avila Beltrán had a brief affair with Zambada after she took up with Espinoza Ramírez, says former DEA official Vigil, and she also worked with other Sinaloa-based syndicates loosely grouped under the so-called Federación alliance. "She was very well tutored by her Colombian boyfriend, and he gave her a lot of latitude on the coordination and smuggling of drugs across the U.S. border," notes Vigil. "Sandra is attractive and charming and was able to develop a lot of political contacts [inside Mexico], and as an individual she provided tremendous assistance to Espinoza Ramírez's Colombian colleagues."

The fetching native of the border city of Tijuana has also played both sides of the aisle. Avila Beltrán's first husband was a crooked commander of the Mexican federal judicial police named José Luis Fuentes, and she bore him at least one son. It was Fuentes who coined the sobriquet "My Queen," Avila Beltrán told authorities after her arrest; the Mexican cop used his proceeds from the drug trade to send his wife on clothing and jewelry shopping sprees in Paris and the United States and to buy her seafront condominiums in Puerto Vallarta and other Pacific Coast resort towns. Fuentes was later killed by some of his ex-colleagues from the federal judicial police in the Sinaloa town of Navolato, and Avila Beltrán's next husband, Rodolfo López Amavizca, was another corrupt official of the country's law enforcement agencies. Then head of Mexico's National Institute for Combating Drugs, López Amavizca was with Avila Beltrán for only a brief time in the mid-1990s; he was later murdered in a hotel room in the northern city of Hermosillo by suspected narcos in 2000.

By the time of the López Amavizca murder Avila Beltrán had long since moved on to Espinoza Ramírez, nicknamed El Tigre (the tiger), but her alleged involvement in the drug trade did not immediately become known to U.S. and Mexican officials. Vigil says that Avila Beltrán first appeared on the DEA's radar in the late 1990s via informants who implicated her directly in smuggling activity. The December 2001 seizure of the multiton consignment of cocaine aboard the vessel Macel in the Mexican Pacific port of Manzanillo bolstered the evidence against her, because cell phone records found on the boat subsequently tied the cargo to Avila Beltrán and Espinoza Ramírez, who was also arrested in Mexico City on the night of her capture two weeks ago. In 2002 Avila Beltrán's teenage son by Fuentes was kidnapped in the city of Guadalajara, and the $5 million ransom demanded by the boy's captors raised the eyebrows of police officials assigned to the case when she reported the abduction. In the event, Avila Beltrán personally took charge of the negotiations with her son's kidnappers and procured his release in exchange for a payment of $3 million, says Patiño.

Mexican lawmen then took a much closer look at her finances and business activities. In October 2002 the federal attorney general's office issued a bulletin accusing Avila Beltrán of having laundered money of Colombian origin through the purchase of 225 real-estate lots, two houses and a tanning salon in the city of Hermosillo. The break in the case came three months earlier with the arrest of two Colombian women at Mexico City's international airport in July of that year who were found to be carrying over $2 million in cash. That led authorities to Avila Beltrán's beau Espinoza Ramírez, because one of the detained couriers was married at the time to a half-brother of El Tigre. Evidence and information obtained from the two women helped uncover Avila Beltrán's extensive money-laundering operation in Hermosillo.

The "Queen of the Pacific" was transferred to a federal prison on the northern outskirts of Mexico City last week, where she will await the outcome of proceedings to extradite her to the U.S. But even if Sandra Avila Beltrán disappears from view for a while, she isn't going to vanish from the imaginations of her countrymen. She has her very own narcocorrido folk song by a band called Los Tucanes de Tijuana (The Toucans of Tijuana) whose lyrics pay tribute to "a very powerful lady" who "is a big player in the business." A video of the song features the Mexican model Fabiola Campomanes in the Queen of the Pacific role.

Avila Beltrán's vanity and gastronomic habits helped Mexican officials track her down in the Mexican capital. She often dined at the Cantonese restaurant Chez Wok in the tony district of Polanco and had her hair styled at two upscale beauty salons on a street seven blocks from the eatery. If her recent appearances in public are anything to go by, imprisonment won't strip her of her highly developed sense of style. In televised footage of her arraignment for transfer to the maximum-security penitentiary last week, she is shown wearing spike heels and skintight jeans, tossing her hair occasionally as she smiles at the camera. At one point during the proceedings she reportedly told the judge, "I like to be called 'the Queen of the Pacific'." And as she was taken away at the conclusion of the hearing, Avila Beltrán turned to the clerk of the court and cooed, "Have a lovely afternoon."

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