Is single-handedly running an international drug cartel network only a men’s game? Most of what we see in pop culture, TV, and the media would suggest so. Pablo Escobar lives on in infamy as the figurehead of the Medellin cartels, defining an era in Colombian history. While shows like Narcos have been criticized at the source for a lack of historical accuracy, this is nonetheless how the past of these drug-dealing days is remembered. And it’s a version of the past—whether true or not—where women are subservient pawns in all aspects of the male-dominated black market industry. In business, we see the likes of Pablo’s mother being manipulated into sequestering money in her couch cushions, and in the men’s personal lives, women are treated as sex objects, standing on the sidelines as mere objects of conquest and power.
Again, I won’t claim that Netflix’s Narcos should be a historical encyclopedia of what really happened in Medellin. There have been several alternatives offered which are said to offer a truer history. But many of the modern day portrayals of the Latin American drug cartels on TV show much of the same—women serving as the spoils of men who become infinitely richer in their risky dealings. While women do hold their own in shows like Queen of the South, this show is a fictional account of modern day drug cartels with some historical context but no actual historical basis.
So, is There a #Herstory to Drug Trafficking?
The short answer: YES! If we look back at Pablo Escobar himself, his wife, Tata, became much more involved in day-to-day operations as his trusted advisor. This is a swift departure from how we see her represented in Narcos—a woman standing in Pablo’s shadow, at the mercy of his every whim. Even after Pablo’s death, Tata maintained limited involvement with the Medellin cartel and received money from them as an exile in Argentina—in 2000 she was arrested for money laundering.
And what about the likes of powerful historical figures like Griselda Blanco? Known as the “Queen of Narco-Trafficking,” she was part of the Medellin cartels and largely responsible for the establishment of Miami as a base for the cocaine trade dating back to the 1970s. Her ruthlessness and brutal tactics rivaled those of Escobar himself, and she is believed to have killed as many as 200 people who threatened her empire. Similarly, in Mexico, Enedina Arellano Felix first worked with her brothers on the sidelines of the Tijuana cartel. She made key financial decisions before becoming the head of the cartel, based on information from the DEA, in the early 2000s. Some even credit her as Mexico’s first female drug lord.
While there was a documentary made on Blanco in 2006—Cocaine Cowboys—we don’t see the same portrayal of these powerful, independent women in the drug trade in scripted Hollywood films. But perhaps this is all about to change. J.Lo will be starring in and executive producing a full-length feature on the life of Blanco on HBO, a film whose female lead will certainly be able to stand up to Pablo Escobar’s Hollywood portrayal in Narcos.
And the drug cartel future may be female as well. The most unsuspecting drug “queenpin” have been replacing the traditional image of the kingpin at the head of the cartel. Who would suspect the retired grandmother, the actress, or social media personality to be working behind the scenes of such a large scale and illicit operation? Nathan Jones, professor at Sam Houston State University, argues that it is because of these unsuspecting characteristics that women have been able to come to the reigns of the cartels—men are more likely to be caught in the line of fire.
In short, the reality is this—on screen, we’re accustomed to seeing the women of the drug cartels as mere background players. But on the ground, things couldn’t be more different. Now that the DEA has captured El Chapo, it is a “queenpin” from the Medellin cartel’s past—Maria Teresa Osorio de Serna—who remains one of the few figures left on their most wanted list.
Even if Hollywood and textbooks want to leave out the role of women in drug cartels, it’s clear that many of them have been and will continue to be leaders in this dangerous profession.