The Women of Narco Noir
Earlier this year, Carmen Amato and Jeanine Kitchel introduced us to Narco Noir, a literary gamechanger that continues to grow, and now they return with a follow-up account of the women in Narco Noir and the various roles they play in both real life and fiction.
They are cops and robbers.
Do-gooders and badass babes.
They are the women of narco noir, the crime fiction category fueled by today’s drug cartel violence and official corruption in Mexico, Colombia, and Central America. In narco noir novels, real events and real people blur into unforgettable fictional characters.
Read the latest thriller by Don Winslow, stream Narcos on Netflix, or hit the theater to catch a showing of Sicario: Day of the Soldado or Miss Bala and you’ll see why narco noir is the mystery genre’s new It Girl.
Gender Roles in Narco Noir
Plot drivers in narco noir tales are generally male: El Chapo-like druglords, relentless federal agents, fearless journalists. But female characters are increasingly dominating the storyline with an array of complex personalities and fateful decisions. These women create memorable moments that leap off the page.
There are four prominent female character archetypes in narco noir. Each type appears in every narco noir book, while some, like Don Winslow’s The Cartel, pack them in all at once.
In no particular order, there’s the female narca, the cop, the civilian caught in the crossfire, and the woman who becomes the chess piece or victim who is used to create allegiances or satisfy an itch. Like the women on whom so many of these characters are based, all of the character archetypes are shaped by the war on drugs. It controls what they do, where they go, who they love, and how long they live.
The women of narco noir don’t live behind white picket fences, have BFFs, or join book clubs. Dinner doesn’t materialize nightly at seven. Narco noir women tend to be loners with no husband or significant other to come home to because the drug war has claimed their emotional lives. They’re as tough and as hardboiled as the tales they inhabit.
In an ironic twist of female solidarity, however, these women are bound together by one simple element.
The need to survive.
The female druglord is a powerful character, competing for smuggling routes and ruthlessness with male counterparts. Amid the paranoia, backstabbing, and shifting alliances of Narcolandia, she’s fighting for a place at the table, a chance to wear the crown, and the respect of partners more used to using women than working with them.
In many cases, circumstances forced their hand due to the loss of a powerful male drug lord. A husband, father, or brother was taken out of the mix due to an unexpected death or incarceration. Females were forced to either step up or be killed by rivals seeking to snatch the spoils—drugs, smuggling routes, and allegiances.
For example, in Don Winslow’s Savages, Elena “La Reina,” the queen of the Baja Cartel, inherits her position after her husband dies. Isabella Bautista, a character in the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, is also a female narca to be reckoned with. And who can forget Arturo Perez-Reverte’s thrilling saga The Queen of the South in which Teresa Mendoza escapes to Spain after facing certain death in Mexico when her boyfriend is murdered. She goes on to run a European drug-running empire. The Queen of the South became a hugely popular small-screen series in Spanish starring Kate del Castillo and in English with Alice Braga. The Kate del Castillo version is returning to Netflix in 2019. This time Mendoza has a daughter to protect, upping the survival game.
Likewise, in my novel (Jeanine) Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival, anti-hero Layla Navarro rises to the top of the fictional Culiacan Cartel—Mexico’s most powerful—when her notorious drug lord uncle is recaptured. Because her older brother, heir apparent, died in an ambush and the other brother isn’t up to the task, Layla must step in to carry on the family business. When she runs afoul of a dubious cartel jefe during a dangerous delivery of drugs from Guatemala to Mexico, she faces a kill-or-be-killed dilemma.
All of these narca characters are inspired by real-life female narco-trafficker Sandra Avila Beltran, known as ‘La Reina del Pacifico.’ Avila served seven years in prison for trafficking and money laundering, scored an interview with Anderson Cooper, and published a book of her prison interviews.
The Italian mafia provides inspiration as well, with the phenomenon of women as drug lords known as “the rise of the godmother.” Italian women began to face a survival problem after their mafia husbands were jailed, sometimes for life, or killed.
“There’s a growing number of women who hold executive roles,” Gen. Gaetano Maruccia, commander of the military police in Naples, told the Associated Press. “They’re either widows of mob bosses or wives whose husbands are in prison. They hold the reins.”
Survive or die, with either salsa verde or clam sauce.
Like the narca, the female cop or federal agent battling the war on drugs operates in a male-dominated atmosphere. Paranoia is a constant companion. Who is a dirty cop? Who can be trusted?
Unlike the narca, however, the cop earns a relative pittance. She’s on the clock. Her location is fixed and her hours are long. There’s little glamour in her life. The work is brutal and often dehumanizing.
In Sam Hawken’s stunning 2013 novel, La Frontera, Texas Ranger Ana Torres may not have wholly lost her soul but she is blunted by the violence she encounters every day along the U.S.-Mexico border. In one strangely disturbing scene, Torres sits and waits for several hours, doing nothing. She is too numb and devoid of inspiration for even simple things like reading a book or drinking coffee to pass the time.
In my (Carmen) noir detective series, Emilia Cruz is the first female police detective in Acapulco, grappling with drug cartels, official corruption, and Mexico’s culture of machismo. Starting with Cliff Diver, Emilia is a woman unafraid to confront the violence in the iconic Pacific coast city, which in 2018 became Mexico’s homicide capital. At the same time, however, Emilia stands to lose her soul in the wreckage. I used my 30-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency to infuse the series with authenticity. Emilia’s perpetual hunt for women who have gone missing—referred to as Las Perdidas or the Lost Ones—was inspired by the hundreds of women missing from the Juarez area. The most recent novel in the series, 43 Missing, is based on the 2014 mass disappearances from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college not far from Acapulco.
Female civilian characters in narco noir fiction are often journalists and healers—people attempting to provide honest civil authority. They occupy a tenuous landscape, without the narca’s money or influence, or the firepower and law enforcement authority of the cop or federal agent.
These women have little more than a steel backbone with which to confront the war on drugs.
María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, the assassinated mayor of Tiquicheo, a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacán, has inspired a number of female characters whose courage serves as a literary tribute to the late physician and politician. Gorrostieta Salazar became mayor upon the assassination of her husband who was the incumbent mayor. During her three-year tenure, she survived three assassination attempts that left her with severe scarring and a colostomy bag which she famously showed to detractors. Gorrostieta Salazar was kidnapped and assassinated by suspected drug traffickers in late 2012.
Federales by Christopher Irvin was a poignant and fictional retelling of her kidnapping and murder from the point of view of her bodyguard.
Marisol Cisneros in Winslow’s The Cartel also bears similarities to Gorrostieta Salazar. Marisol, also a doctor, is wounded in a cartel assassination attempt yet becomes mayor of a small town desperately in need of fearless civil authority.
Real-life journalists have also inspired a number of female characters in narco noir, such as the female journalist played by Rachel Ticotin in the 2004 film Man on Fire.
Anabel Hernandez of Mexico City is best known for her non-fiction book Narco Land and more recently, A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students. But before penning these bold treatises about cartels and corruption, she worked as a crime reporter in Mexico City. Her investigative reporting became so abrasive that members of one cartel, falsely identifying themselves as federal police agents and armed with AK-47s, shut off her Mexico City neighborhood to track her down after de-activating security cameras in the area. Luckily she wasn’t home at the time of the manhunt. She was assigned a bodyguard soon thereafter and left Mexico for the U.S. where she taught investigative journalism for two years at UC Berkeley. Eventually, her fame caught up with her, and word has it that she is once again undercover.
The same thing happened to journalist Lydia Cacho. Cacho, described by Amnesty International as “perhaps Mexico’s most famous investigative journalist and women’s rights advocate,” reported tirelessly on sexual abuse against women and children. In her 2003 book, Demons of Eden, Cacho exposed a pedophile and child pornography ring in Puebla, Mexico, that included the top tier of politicos in its membership. Cacho, who lived in Cancun and wrote for Por Esto, was kidnapped and tortured by Puebla authorities two years after the book’s publication. They put her in the trunk of a car and drove twenty hours from Cancun to Puebla where they planned to arraign her. A network of friends and activists sprung into action and bailed her out. When asked how she managed to survive, she stated, “I don’t scare easily.”
Unfortunately, Cacho too had to flee Mexico to remain safe. Her writings are the very basis of narco noir: lurid real-life stories that sound like the stuff of legend, but which in fact are the genre’s backbone.
The Chess Piece or Victim
This female character archetype is generally a secondary character and her ability to survive is much more fragile than any other. These characters are prostitutes, girlfriends, child brides, informants, or someone caught in the crossfire. Often resigned to her fate—or too clueless to realize what is happening—a chess piece is used and abused by narcos and cops alike.
As plot devices, they serve to paint a picture of the user/abuser, forge alliances between cartels like European royalty of days long gone, and/or supply information. Especially with regard to the latter, they provide twists that other characters cannot.
In Winslow’s The Cartel, legions of girls pass through the beds of cartel types as the classy Laura Amaro acts as a courier and a recruiter for her husband. The main cartel character marries the teen-aged Eva in order to cement a relationship with her father, in much the same way that real-life head of the Sinaloa Cartel, El Chapo (Juaquín Guzman Loera) married Emma Coronel Aispuro, a Sinaloa beauty queen.
In Cliff Diver, hookers become informants able to reveal the sordid sex life of a crooked cop. Think narco pillow talk. And in the later Pacific Reaper, women are lured into a human trafficking net supplying the narcos.
In Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels, and Survival, a key plot twist turns on narca Layla Navarro’s discovery of a 12-year-old girl, trafficked by her own cartel unbeknownst to herself or her drug lord uncle. The girl is kidnapped from her Guatemala City barrio to be used as a chattel in the lucrative sex trade, one more victim of cartel dominance wreaking havoc on the lives of average citizens.
While perhaps a sharp stick in the eye to the feminist movement, narco noir mirrors true life when it comes to this character archetype, perhaps more so than for any of the other three.
In reality, cartels use women as sex workers, prostitutes, and mistresses, and in Narco Land, Anabel Hernandez describes in detail what became of three women whom El Chapo used for sex while in Puente Grande, Mexico’s maximum-security prison near Guadalajara. During his first incarceration, El Chapo became fixated with 23-year-old fellow inmate Zulema Yulia Hernandez. She became pregnant twice and was forced to abort both times. When El Chapo tired of her, he passed her around like a piece of merchandise to prison managers and inmates alike. While in prison, Hernandez attempted suicide twice, was released in 2008, and was later found dead in a car trunk with the letter “Z” etched into her buttocks, stomach, and breasts.
The second victim of El Chapo’s prison flings was inmate Diane Patricia, who had been charged with murder. In prison, she was repeatedly gang-raped and attempted suicide. El Chapo was called “an animal” by the president of the Jalisco Human Rights Commission which eventually intervened before the rape culture claimed Patricia’s life.
El Chapo’s third victim was Yves Eréndira Moreno who cooked in the prison’s kitchen. Guzman propositioned the single 38-year-old mother many times and for a while, she managed to avoid his advances. Perhaps because she was a little older than his previous prison sex-mates, she survived the sex games he required of her and outlived his stay at the prison. He escaped in 2001, and she had managed to live through it.
In Guzman’s recent trial in New York, various mistresses detailed how they met and were wooed by the drug lord.
These women were decades younger than Guzman, and often served as mules or go-betweens in his various drug dealings. One mistress, a teary-eyed Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, explained one of his many close-calls with the law. The two were holed up at one of his remote mountain hideaways when Mexican military helicopters flew overhead.
He disappeared down a tunnel hidden underneath a bathtub, naked, and onto a waiting motorcycle below. She followed behind and they escaped the authorities, for the moment. Guzman, age 61, moved on to Mazatlan where he met up with his third and current wife, 29-year-old Emma Coronel Aispuro and their twin two-year-old daughters.
Just days later he was apprehended, incarcerated for a second time, and eventually extradited to the U.S. to face charges.
A Crack in the Archetypal Ceiling?
Emma Coronel Aispuro was the picture of the loving wife during the infamous trial of El Chapo in New York City earlier this year. Every day, she brought him a new outfit to wear at the trial and one day they even wore matching burgundy velvet blazers, making the media swoon over the apparent sign of solidarity between husband and wife. As the trial closed each day, they blew each other kisses.
With her husband guilty on all counts and locked away in prison for the rest of his life, what will become of Emma Coronel Aispuro?
Will it be worth fictionalizing?
According to numerous reports, she’s going into business, selling El Chapo-branded jeans, dress shirts, sombreros, shoes, accessories, and liquor via an online store. Supposedly, the site describes El Chapo as a “humble seller of oranges with many goals and great ambition.” The fashion venture is already in competition with a similar business set up by one of Guzman’s adult children.
Does this mean that Coronel Aispuro won’t become a narca in her own right? Or be the dutiful chess piece any longer? Will she instead set the wheels turning for another narco noir character archetype?
Perhaps a new tale is yet to be written.
About the Authors:
Members of the dynamic Mexico Writers group on Facebook, Carmen Amato and Jeanine Kitchel first collaborated on the travel essay collection The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. They write crime fiction, however, from opposite ends of the cops-and-cartel spectrum.
Carmen Amato used the counterdrug expertise gained during a 30 year career with the CIA to create the Detective Emilia Cruz series set in Acapulco. Pitting the iconic Mexican city’s first female police detective against cartels, corruption and machismo, the series recently won the Poison Cup award for Outstanding Series from CrimeMasters of America. Carmen is a recipient of both the National Intelligence Award and the Career Intelligence Medal. Visit her website at http://carmenamato.net to get a free copy of the Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library.
Jeanine Kitchel’s love of Mexico led her to a fishing village on the Mexican Caribbean coast where she bought land, built a house, and opened a bookstore. A former journalist, she wrote travel articles for newspapers and Mexico websites before branching into fiction.
In Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival, Latina protagonist Layla Navarro rises to the top of Mexico’s most powerful cartel after her drug lord uncle is recaptured. Challenged by enemies from without and within, she’s determined to retain her dominant position in Mexico’s criminal world—if she can stay alive. Book two in the trilogy, Layla’s Law, is in the works. Check JeanineKitchel.com for details.