Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández: ‘Narco women are much more than mafia dolls’

The reporter talks about her new book, which delves into the most intimate sphere of drug lords’ lives and busts many myths about the true extent of their power

Elena Reina
Anabel Hernández sobre las mujeres de los narcos
The journalist Anabel Hernández at a talk on freedom of the press in 2019.ANDREA MURCIA (Cuartoscuro)

While in Italy, Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández was asked a question she didn’t know how to answer: “What is the role of drug lords’ wives in your country?” Hernández, like most reporters in Mexico, had always considered them a sideshow, almost as accessories to the real operations of a criminal network. Narco wives are often portrayed as naive, perhaps suffering from bad luck, fundamentally innocent and without any control over their destiny. Hernández’s reaction surprised herself: had she really swallowed this simplistic, even sexist discourse? Did these women really not know what they were doing?

Hernández has spent more than 15 years picking apart the relationship between drug trafficking and political power, but only recently concluded that she had missed something important during her long years of analyzing organized crime. Women, whether mistresses or wives, formed a fundamental pillar within the criminal dynamic.

In his romantic relationships, she believes, a drug lord rediscovers himself as mortal, capable of sticking his neck out for love. “They help them to breathe,” said Hernández in an interview with EL PAÍS. She is now convinced that ignoring these women has been a mistake, one that has only contributed to mythologizing men who are not as indestructible as they seem.

Hernández has just published a book in Spanish, Emma y las otras señoras del narco [or, Emma and other narco women] focusing on the wives and mistresses of drug cartel leaders, beginning with Emma Coronel, the wife of Mexico’s infamous drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Question. What do women involved with drug cartels have in common?

Answer. Actually, the interesting thing is that each of the women I researched had very different profiles: some come from narco families and others were once Miss Universe. But many of them are pathological liars. Emma Coronel herself denied to me and everyone else who interviewed her that her husband El Chapo was involved in drug trafficking. They deny it automatically. And they would deny it, because who is going to admit that they have been part of these criminal networks? We have for example Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe, who established a relationship with this man nicknamed “El Indio” who was part of the Beltrán Leyva gang, and one wonders: what motivates a woman like her, who is successful, to get involved in this world? And that’s where the obvious answers start to get more complicated. There is no one answer for all of them.

Q. Where did you get the idea to write a book about narco women, and what do their private lives tell us beyond morbid curiosity?

A. This is not a simplistic book of gossip. It is really a social critique on how all these circles of criminal groups that are destroying Mexico actually function. It all started when I met Emma Coronel in 2016 and she gave me her first interview, shortly after El Chapo was arrested for the third and last time. After that I was in contact with her for about two years, through WhatsApp and phone calls. And for me she was always an enigma. In Europe there is a whole debate, particularly in Italy, about the crucial role that women play in the mafia clans. They used to ask me: “What is it like in Mexico?” And I had always understood that they had a minor role to play. But I decided to rethink it. Until now it has been mainly male journalists who have tried to tell the story of these narco women who are always portrayed as mafia dolls, but they are much more than that. Their role is more complex. It is emotional support, and they are really part of the motivation of these criminals to become criminals.

Q. They really have that level of responsibility?

A. Yes, because in a macho, patriarchal system like Mexico’s, sexism is exacerbated in criminal circles. These men impose a macho environment through violence, and this is also imposed at home. From that point of view, they also collect women. There is a phrase from a witness I interviewed who said something very interesting: ‘”When men own everything they could ever want, they start buying people.” And mainly drug traffickers buy women. Wives, marrying daughters off to other drug traffickers, finding mistresses.... These women are an emotional support, the ones who do not condemn them, who embrace them, the ones who allow them to justify themselves. They can say to themselves that they’re doing what they do for the family. Women are indispensable, they are their oxygen. These men wouldn’t be drug traffickers on their own, they would not exist, they would not survive. They need that sentimental, emotional, sexual gratification.

Q. Why is Emma Coronel the protagonist of your book?

A. I started investigating drug trafficking in 2005, and I learned two years later that El Chapo had married a teenager. From then on, I was trying to make contact with her. That was never possible in those years, and Emma became an unanswered question for me. After I interviewed her and saw her lie over and over again, I asked myself questions. Who were these women, and what was in their heads? Then through El Chapo’s trial we found out that Emma was not as happy as she was telling us. I was able to interview people who were very close to her during the trial and they would see her walk into the hotel looking devastated. In court she would show up stony-faced, showing no anger; she could listen to the bloodiest and most horrible testimony about her husband, including raping young girls, and she would remain impassive. That was the performance! Because when she returned to the hotel she would start crying in despair, and she was angry mainly at herself. Emma is the common thread of my book because she is a kind of paradigm of the role of women in drug trafficking in Mexico and also a paradigm that is broken, because what Emma did in the end was to break with the cartel. She pleaded guilty. And she blew up the law of silence that all the women at the top subscribe to.

Q. They are always portrayed as naive, not very smart, innocent, always in the shadows and taking care of their families. How much of that is real and how much have you discovered is not?

A. That is exactly what is anthropologically interesting. They are not innocent at all. They can’t say they didn’t know who their husbands are, although they always deny it. Some, like Emma, were minors when they met them; but others were not, and even though they were working women and successful in their own careers, they got involved in this criminal world. In the testimonies I have collected from people close to them, like the ones who drove the car, who opened and closed doors, or who were there next to the boss or participating directly, they reveal that this is real. And one realizes that a drug lord’s inner circle is like a medieval court, where the king is the narco, the queen is the wife and around him circulate actresses, singers, actors, musical groups, all applauding, praising the boss.

Q. In some of the cases you mention, like El Chapo’s lover Lucero Sánchez, she helped him with drug trafficking operations, so she wasn’t just applauding and consoling him when he got home, she also participated.

A. They participate, and they enjoy it, and they profit from the criminal assets obtained through drug trafficking. They know they are drug traffickers, because these men are accompanied by bodyguards armed to the teeth. It is very obvious who they are and what they do.

Emma Coronel Aispuro, tercera esposa de Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán
Emma Coronel outside Federal Court in Brooklyn, New York on January 17, 2019.Kevin Hagen (AP)

Q. In your book you looked not only at drug lords’ wives, but also at their relationship with power and show business. You described how the former mayor of Acapulco, Félix Salgado Macedonio, and congressman Sergio Mayer were regulars at Sinaloa cartel bosses’ parties in Guerrero. What was the relationship between drug trafficking, power and show business?

A. It’s a game of revolving doors where corruption enters and leaves at the same speed as the wives, mistresses, daughters and everybody else. Women from both worlds circulate in the relationships between officials, politicians and businessmen and the drug traffickers, and therefore become go-betweens. The case of Andrea Vélez, who had a modeling agency that sent prostitutes to the Sinaloa cartel as well as to Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign, is significant. The women went from the narco’s bed to the politician’s bed.

Q. Many of the wives and mistresses that you mention in the book were well-known faces, such as Galilea Montijo, Ninel Conde and Lucha Villa. Why have narcos always been attracted to celebrity circles?

A. Because they need it. What’s the point of having millions and millions of dollars if they can’t share them or show them off to anyone? What’s the point of having a Ferrari if there’s no one to ride in the passenger seat? It may seem like a very, very elementary question, but that’s the way it is. These drug traffickers are social animals, like any other human being, and soulless criminals as well, but they also need to feel accepted, loved, desired, respected, not only because they are criminals, but because they are the patriarchs of their clan.

Q. What do these women get to know that no one else does?

A. They are the narcos’ emotional support. Ultimately, these men need someone to applaud them and recognize their victories, even if they are criminal victories. And in some way to help them escape social rejection, which unfortunately is becoming less and less common. These women are their emotional pillar and that is fundamental for any human being. That is why it is so important to know the dynamics of these cells, because if we don’t really understand them, we can’t fight back. These are their weak points.

Ninel Conde las mujeres de los narcos de Anabel Hernández
Ninel Conde at the launch of her new clothing line Fashion Boutique in February 2019.Getty Images

Q. El Chapo’s relationship with [Mexican actress] Kate del Castillo is contradictory, as on many occasions this is precisely the kind of thing this puts them at risk and they get caught.

A. There is a streak of irrationality because of their own emotional and physical needs. You realize that the narcos are not super-intelligent men, as they want to be portrayed. Not everything is strategy. The book demystifies all these figures and shows them for what they are. In the end they have the same weaknesses and mistakes that any unfaithful man might have. This image of indestructible men has been created because only the male point of view has been taken into account, and journalists, directors of series about them, and the authorities themselves have not opened up their emotional side. They need simpler things, like a Ferrari and a beautiful girl to show it off to.

Q. There is no woman in your book who is really the head of a criminal group, has there ever been one? Two names come to mind: Enedina Arellano Félix and [Sandra Ávila Beltrán] La Reina del Pacífico.

A. Either they don’t exist or I haven’t found them. Sandra Ávila Beltrán was like many of these women who were lovers, sentimental partners. She was not a cartel mastermind. Enedina, well, she was left with power in an almost accidental way, and it was her son who mainly stayed with the cartel, not her. Up until now I have not found any woman about whom I could say that she is a female El Chapo or El Mayo.

Q. Why is that, given that many of them come from the same criminal environment as daughters, sisters or wives of capos?

A. Because of the same macho pattern. It is a very interesting contrast because the women of the mafia families in Sicily, when their husbands go to prison, they take their place. That is not the case in Mexico. The wives don’t have any independence, not even financially, and they can’t make any decisions. They don’t have anything in their name and although they live the high life, they are completely dependent on the men. They can’t decide anything like ending the criminal stage of their lives and going to live in another country, for example. Because the men don’t want them to have any initiative, they want them as slaves.

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