916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

An intro to the cops beat

The first time I rode in a police car I was 15, maybe 16. And I was in the backseat. I wasn’t in handcuffs, but I was in trouble.

I’d broken curfew by crossing back into my hometown of El Paso from Ciudad Juarez in the early morning hours without parental supervision. It was a measure El Paso had to keep young kids from partying in the Mexican city before it became one of the deadliest places in the world. And it was a rule we were constantly looking for ways to get around—sometimes, like in this case, unsuccessfully.

But let’s skip the details. Needless to say, the drive of shame isn’t a proud memory. My mother’s glare burned through the steel of the car. She hit my head with a good, ol’ coscorrón, fueling all stereotypes of a Mexican mother’s wrath, as soon as she bid the officer goodbye and slammed the door. My relationship with my mom is awesome, but with law enforcement it had been one of fear and some disdain ever since.

That’s changed since I came to San Antonio three months ago and took the job as, ironically, the night crime reporter. Now I listen to scanners. They chat away in my dreams sometimes, dictating dispatcher code of emergencies in faraway lands. I’ll admit it. I wasn’t fond of it. Not at first. So much to get used to, the winding and intertwining highways, the briefs, the tweets, the constant updates on so many deaths—then checking the fax machine the next day for the police reports (which I still forget to do sometimes).

My perception has quickly changed, though. I like the rush of getting to the scene, the chase after information, the beauty in the details of some cases. I’m learning to be strong, even in the most heart-wrenching of crimes, and yet to remain sensitive when it seems like the same shootings and stabbings and assaults keep happening time and time again. There are people hurting for loved ones behind so many of the stories we write.

I’m also getting to know the police officers, realizing they’re not always craving donuts or out to get me. Just this week, I even got to ride in another cop car — this time on a voluntary ride-along. Things looked different from the passenger’s seat, and Jason Macias, an overnight officer from the police department’s Central Substation, took me around his typical patrol areas, giving me a tour of the inside world I’m always trying to peek into from the other side of the yellow caution tape.

He told me about his job, how he loved the freedom of it and having his office in his car. He wanted to help people but was often frustrated seeing the same criminals he helped put away, soon back on the streets. Then near 3 a.m., just as I was dozing off and we were going to stop to eat, the scanners started calling out a shooting on East Market Street and Alamo, smack in the middle of downtown. We arrived to find two men bloodied and lying curled up on the sidewalk. One struggled to get up. The other victim had this look on his face. It’s cliché to say, but I’ll never forget how he was there … and then just gone. It reminded me life is precious. That it’s short.

As published May 7, 2011 in the Rap Sheet Blog of the San Antonio Express-News

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

 

Human trafficking: A look into a shadowy trade

Austin shelter for sex trafficking survivors under development

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
A local nonprofit is leading efforts to create a shelter in Austin for sex trafficking survivors. Expected to open next year, the shelter should have beds for up to 30 girls from across Central Texas.

Larry Megason, executive director of Restore A Voice, said the group has found an undisclosed location for the facility and plans to unveil a $1.3 million capital campaign in November that would fund the land, building and operation costs through the end of 2013, including pay for administrators and counselors.
Full story.

A long way to go on crime so close to home

By Jazmine Ulloa
Blog post, From the desk of…

The girls Ellen Parsons wants to help don’t tell.

They don’t trust adults. They don’t use words like pimp or prostitute. And they don’t view themselves as victims of an ugly, multimillion-dollar sex business that exploits hundreds of thousands of adolescents every day. Instead, Ellen says, they see the trade as a way to survive and remain independent in a system that has often misunderstood their struggles — and in the worst cases treated them as criminals.
Full story.

A survivor of the sex trade tells her story

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Trapped in the underworld of the multimillion-dollar sex trade, Jes Richardson says she was afforded only one luxury: sending postcards home to her mother.

She was 17, she remembers, when she was lured into a West Coast prostitution circuit by an older man who made her feel like a queen and promised her travel to faraway places and exotic beaches.

But she never stepped foot in the ocean. Instead, she says, she found herself on a cruel and disorienting journey that quickly moved her and other girls from city to city, john to john, through Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and British Columbia.
Full story.

State lacking data on human trafficking, officials say

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Texas legislators and law enforcement officials say they are facing challenges in collecting statewide human trafficking data that could be used to drive investigations and policy decisions.

No uniform reporting system exists to track the arrests and convictions associated with the modern-day slave trade of people forced into labor or commercial sex, and the state agencies tasked with measuring its scope say they are struggling to receive accurate statistics from police departments and courts.
Full story.

Sex traffickers prove harder to catch as they move online

Courtesy photo

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
The sex industry has evolved in the past two decades, moving from the streets to computer screens, and authorities in Austin and across the state say their efforts to enforce the law and find and protect victims are hampered by the shift.

Detectives said they have made strides to fight what they describe as a modern-day form of slavery by enhancing their collaboration across jurisdictions and their use of tools on the Web, where victims are easier to hide, predators harder to catch and evidence tougher and more time-consuming to gather. But authorities said offline efforts are just as important, such as training officers, emergency responders and residents on how to detect potential sex trafficking circles in their own communities.
Full story.

Legal notes from inside and outside the courtroom.

Ex-football player Erxleben arrested again on fraud charges

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Eight years after his release from prison on fraud charges, former football player Russell Erxleben was arrested Thursday at his Dripping Springs home. He is accused of defrauding investors through a Ponzi scheme that paid out more than $2 million in nearly four years.

In an indictment handed up Tuesday and unsealed Thursday, Erxleben was charged with five counts of wire fraud, two counts of money laundering and one count of securities fraud. He appeared, in black gym shorts and a T-shirt, before a federal judge hours after his arrest and asked for a court-appointed lawyer.
Full story.

Jovita’s owner Pardo, accused of heroin trafficking, dies of cancer

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
The prominent restaurateur at the center of a federal drug and money laundering investigation died Wednesday — nine days after he was released on bond because he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Amado “Mayo” Pardo, 64, was one of 15 people netted in a raid last summer at Jovita’s Restaurant and Bar on South First Street. All were charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin, punishable by a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison.
Full story.

Trial begins for outspoken detainee

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Rama Carty stands trial for the alleged assaults against two officers at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Bayview.

A federal jury will determine this week whether a man born in the Democratic Republic of Congo is guilty of assaulting two officers at Port Isabel Detention Center in Bayview.
Full story.

Camacho takes witness stand

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
In court Thursday, Angela Camacho testified she did not remember much of what took place the night of March 11, 2003, the date her three children were beheaded.
Camacho, 30, pleaded guilty to three counts of capital murder in July 2005 in the deaths of the children. Her common-law husband, John Allen Rubio, 29, is on trial this week to determine whether he is presently competent to stand trial on capital murder charges for the killings.
Full story.

Municipal judge released from psychiatric facility

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
A Brownsville municipal judge was ordered released Monday afternoon from a mandatory stay at a psychiatric facility, where he had been held since his arrest earlier in January.

In a two-day hearing, Municipal Judge Phil Bellamy was found to be mentally unstable, but a Cameron County judge said there was not enough evidence to suggest he would be a danger to himself or others if he were released.
Full story.

Daily and enterprise stories from the night crime beat.

Online collective aims to ‘print’ plastic guns

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Cody Wilson’s idea was not to sell guns but to print them — lots of them — with the mission of developing an open-source design that could be widely shared and distributed online.

But the second-year law student at the University of Texas has found himself at the center of a legal controversy after the 3-D printing company that allowed him to borrow a printer sent a team of contractors late last week to reclaim its property a day after it was delivered to his central Austin apartment near Hyde Park.
Full story.

Family, co-workers mourn man killed while changing tire

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Ana Margarita Loredo had been joking with her father last week alongside the curb of their East Austin home, when she said she saw a silver Mercury Tracer violently swerve in their direction. She does not know how she managed to escape its path, she said, but she regrets not moving quickly enough to save her father.

“I keep thinking maybe there was something I could have done, but I never thought the car would hit my car,” she said in Spanish on Monday.
Full story.

Residents near 12th, Chicon say momentum turning

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
At the corner of 12th and Chicon streets, where gentrification is transforming the demographics of a historic neighborhood, new and longtime residents have found common ground: a demand for public safety.

For more than 40 years, authorities say, empty businesses and blighted houses have sustained a bustling sale of pot and crack cocaine along the streets and alleys of an intersection marked by a stubborn notoriety. The trade runs night and day, and efforts to stymie the ensuing stream of prostitution, theft and occasional violence have fallen by the wayside through the decades, leaving what some say is a stinging residue of bitter relations with police.
Full story.

Lack of funding leads to backlog of untested rape kits

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
To investigators in San Marcos, he was an unidentified strain of DNA, a sequence of numbers and letters swabbed off the skin of his victim in February 2011 and entered into a national FBI database under unsolved case 11-09621.

But not until last month did Buda and Austin police learn his name, officials said, by tracking him down in a separate sexual assault case that led to his arrest.
Full story.

Austin drug seizures are up, but what does it mean?

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
On display last month on long, white tables next to guns and stacks of cash were more than a dozen bricks of cocaine and six small bundles of heroin. Four blocks of marijuana the size of throw pillows sat nearby.

The narcotics seizures made by the Austin Police Department in three separate cases over an estimated three weeks were among the largest in its history.
Full story.

Austin police’s missing-person unit has high rate of success

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
A call came in this month from a mother who said her 18 -year-old son was gone. He took the car and had not attended school, made it to work or even picked up his paycheck in the two weeks since he was last seen. She did not know his friends or have any of their names, phone numbers or addresses. She could not think of a reason why he would have just dropped everything and left.

On a muggy December morning, Detectives David Gann and Timothy Hoppock , with the missing persons unit of the Austin Police Department , stood outside the woman’s East Austin apartment, running through all the possible leads.
Full story.

Remains of Kyle woman missing for seven years identified

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
KYLE — On Wednesday morning, Maria Piñeda received a painful answer to the question she said she had been asking herself for the past seven years, “Where is my daughter?”

Authorities with the Hays County sheriff’s office and the Justice of the Peace came to tell her that remains recovered from the Blanco River in March were identified as her 24-year-old daughter, Laurie Piñeda, who was swept away at a flooded low-water crossing northeast of San Marcos on Nov. 14, 2004.
Full story.

Body found may be missing elderly woman, police say

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
In the days after Mary Townsley was reported missing, her longtime friend and neighbor, David Robert Bravo, said he kept listening for a knock on the wall.

Townsley, 81, is a frail, quiet woman whose hands and feet are disfigured and often ache, he said. Whenever she fell, she could not get back up and would tap at the thin plaster dividing their apartments to call him.
Full story.

Woman’s kin hope for answers in slaying

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A photo of Maria Teresa Leon kept next to the urn holding her ashes shows a woman with solemn eyes and long, dark hair. In the days before she went missing, her parents recalled, their daughter had seemed
quieter than usual.

Leon, 38, worked at a local shoe factory. She was reserved and prone to worry, and she rarely smiled, said her father, Abel Leon. A single mother to an 8-year-old boy and sole provider for her parents, there were bills to pay, chores to do and homework to help with.
Full story.

Courthouse partiers just want to go home

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
The trip was to last three months, the adventure of a lifetime.

The idea was to tour the United States from the East to West coasts and back in a rented recreational vehicle, breakdancing on the streets to scrounge up extra cash as needed.

The five young men, all French citizens, saved money for six months, charting routes, booking hotels, buying tickets. But the cross-country trek ended abruptly after two of them broke into the Bexar County Courthouse early Wednesday.
Full story.

She still wears black

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Magazine
 
Sgt. Yvonne Vann wants to testify. She wants to tell the jury what was taken, what she lost in the early hours of May 28, 2011, when authorities allege 42-year-old Mark Anthony Gonzales, intoxicated and on antidepressants, opened ambush-style fire on Bexar County Sheriff Deputy Sgt. Kenneth Vann, her colleague and husband.

A veteran and sheriff deputy for almost 24 years, Kenneth, 48, had been waiting in a marked patrol car at a red light in east San Antonio when he was attacked. He died at the scene, and the slaying ignited a massive investigation that involved local and federal agencies and garnered national headlines.

What the killer took, Yvonne says, with a solemn gaze out of round, dark eyes, was her most trusted friend, her deepest supporter, and the man whom she had built a house and a life with on the rolling hills of northern Spring Branch.

On Memorial Day, the anniversary of his death, craft supplies spill across Yvonne’s kitchen table—paper, scissors, labels, ribbons and plastic flowers, all in red, white and blue. Three large wreaths sit on thin metal stands before the bright disarray. They are covered in patriotic insignia and the colors and crest of the U.S. Marines. She was up past midnight cutting and pasting, arranging and rearranging their display. Kenneth, contemplative and stern in his deputy uniform, gazes out of blown-up photographs attached to the middle of each crown. “It’s true: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” she says. A smile spreads across her face, copper blonde hair falling at her shoulders.

Yvonne, 45, gets things done. She began her 20 years in law enforcement as a detention officer on the overnight shift at the Bexar County Jail and worked her way up to the patrol division and later the investigative unit. Today she is dressed in jeans and a navy blue T-shirt, ready to run errands in preparation for the small ceremony she has organized, where about three dozen friends and relatives will gather in the sweltering summer evening to share their memories of her husband. This is the reason for the service, she says, pointing to the lettering on a garland: “A hero remembered never dies.”

On her first stop of the day, Yvonne rolls her red Ford Explorer into a parking lot beside the towering, dusty brown complex of the Bexar County Jail in downtown San Antonio. Behind her, 16-year-old Kenneth Vann Jr. and a teenage friend pull up in another SUV and carry one of the wreaths from the trunk to a small outdoor courtyard.

Rectangular plaques, slender and silver, are fixed in a brick ledge commemorating sheriff officers and officials killed in the line of duty over the decades. The first was Joseph Hood, Yvonne explains to her husband’s youngest son, who is looking over the fallen sheriff’s inscription, dated 1840. He was slain in a battle against Comanche chiefs.

She walks over to the black tablet where her husband’s name is engraved in thin, gold letters. Kenneth was the 17th deputy to die on duty and the last in almost a decade. At 2:12 a.m., dispatchers held a moment of silence in his honor over the radio. Officers who had worked with him on the night shift decorated the scene of his death with flowers and placards. “They were sitting out there reminiscing and eating gummy bears,” she says, “just like he always used to do.”

When she thinks of the senselessness of it all—of a crime without reason—she becomes angry and her voice trails away.

At the memorial, the hum of cicadas and birds fills the silence as friends and relatives make their way to Kenneth’s grave behind St. Joseph Catholic Church in Spring Branch. Kenny was a troublemaker as a child, they recall, and trade smiles. He straightened up when he joined the military and became a loving husband and devoted father.

He was a lot smarter than he looked, a childhood friend jokes, and he dreamed of having a family. No one fit that plan better than Yvonne. Drying her eyes, she finally stands before the cluster of loved ones to speak. “I just wanted us to share memories of Kenneth,” she says, a slight tremble in her words. “Thank you all for all of your support.”

Kenneth was married when they first met in 1994 responding to a report of a burglary in action. She was training to become a sergeant. He was a traffic officer. While he attempted to bust down the door, Yvonne entered the house with other deputies through a sliding door in the rear. She caught one of the burglars, too—the “Maytag Kid” who hid in the dryer. “We made three good arrests that day,” she recalls.

The timing wouldn’t be right for more than two years after his divorce. In 2004, at the prodding of friends, Kenneth finally built up the courage to ask Yvonne on a date. Fellow deputies knew they were in love. She was the missing piece in his puzzle, they say. Outgoing and sweet, she softened him up and pulled him out of his shell.

They moved into their new home on his birthday, Nov. 2, 2004, with his three children: Kenneth Jr.; Justin, now 20; and Rachel, now 26. Like any couple, they had their troubles and their fights about bills, credit scores and retirement. But they were an all-American family and shared all the responsibilities. She worked by day and he worked by night. “Kenny would tell me we were two ships passing in the night,” she says.

Yvonne would take Kenny Jr. to school. Kenneth would come home and sleep, then pick his son up and sometimes surprise her with dinner.
A skilled mechanic, he would work on their renovated green RV for hours, and they would take it out on weekend vacations and cross-country road trips—first with the kids, and later as they grew older, on their own. She would drive by day and he would drive by night. They were happy.

Courtesy photo

They had plans to retire, to travel to California and Florida and maybe Colorado, and to someday renew their vows on a Jamaican beach. But despite what Yvonne has lost, she still has her strength. “I am a fighter,” she says. “I have always been a fighter.”

She had been asleep in the dark morning hours when she heard the knock. Through the glass doors of her home, she could see flashing lights behind several deputies and her mother. She knew what a visit like this meant. She and Kenneth had often discussed the dangers of the job and the fear crossed her mind that he could be seriously wounded. But the pain that coursed through her in those moments as she learned of her husband’s death was unbelievable.

They had been days away from celebrating their third marriage anniversary. For the first time, she felt the push and pull of her two worlds collide and did not know which role to play—deputy or wife, wife or deputy.

She was infuriated by the lack of details. She wanted to rush to the site herself, to interrogate every person within miles, to put together the evidence like she had in hundreds of investigations throughout her career.

Now, however, she was the victim. There were rules to follow, and a crime scene that could not be jeopardized. Sheriff department protocol dictated she could not visit the area. She had to surrender her gun, a policy of which she reminded her colleagues; in retrospect, probably more for her own good, she says. She waited until sunrise to tell the children and finally broke down when she was alone.

Before authorities had any information, there were theories the killer could have been someone she or Kenneth knew or had arrested in the past.

Then a man came forward and told authorities he and Gonzales had planned to meet at a nearby Denny’s. According to court documents, less than an hour after the shooting Gonzales called the man and said, “I killed a cop. Don’t tell no one, not even your wife.” When investigators arrested Gonzales a week after the incident, they said he had no connection to the Vanns and they had found no motive. An arrest warrant affidavit states the suspect had been drinking all day and taking medication before the slaying.

Jury selection for Gonzales’ capital murder trial was previously set to start in July, but a district judge granted a motion filed by the defendant’s attorneys to postpone the trial. A new date has not been selected. Yvonne is prepared, she says a couple of days after the memorial. She has not forgiven her husband’s shooter and does not believe she ever will, but she has found ways to heal.

She took a three-month leave of absence after Kenneth’s death but came back to the job because she believes she has so much left to contribute. She patrolled southwestern Bexar County upon her return, which was tough and made her family and coworkers uneasy for her safety. When a position opened up with the mental health unit, she took it. She assists the courts, serves warrants and helps transport inmates considered criminally insane to treatment facilities. It is more of a desk job, she says, but mental health is an area often neglected, and she finds the responsibilities rewarding. With her bachelor’s degree in public justice and a master’s in management, she plans to pursue a career as a lieutenant.

She keeps busy as a volunteer, as well, working with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization focused on promoting new legislation and enforcement of federal and state gun control laws, regulations and public policies. She shares her story at local and national events and lobbies to keep weapons out of the hands of convicted felons, like the man accused of killing her husband.

She hopes some good emerges from the tragedy. And she wants to do more for victims. Her husband’s death thrust her into a new world. “I had never been on that side,” she says. “It always happens to someone else. It never happens to you.”

What moves her forward every day, she says, are Kenneth’s children, whom she considers her own. Especially in the boys, one can see their father’s handsome features, a strong jaw and serious eyes. Their daughter is about to be a mother, their eldest son is majoring in biomedical engineering at Texas A&M University, and the youngest is a junior at Smithson Valley High School. After his father died, he chose to continue living with Yvonne, rather than his biological mother.

Yvonne didn’t think they would ever marry. He didn’t seem to want to after a difficult divorce. She just wanted to be near him. But on Christmas Day in 2006, she found a little box with a ring hidden in the pine tree in their living room. In that romantic side he rarely revealed, he knelt down on one knee and popped the question.
She doesn’t know if she will ever marry again. But she does know she will never love someone as much as she does Kenny.

As published September 2012

Photo by Josh Huskin

 

Woman’s kin hope for answers in slaying

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A photo of Maria Teresa Leon kept next to the urn holding her ashes shows a woman with solemn eyes and long, dark hair. In the days before she went missing, her parents recalled, their daughter had seemed
quieter than usual.

Leon, 38, worked at a local shoe factory. She was reserved and prone to worry, and she rarely smiled, said her father, Abel Leon. A single mother to an 8-year-old boy and sole provider for her parents, there were bills to pay, chores to do and homework to help with.

She wore a dress the last time he bid his daughter farewell, at their Southwest Side apartment. She looked nervous.

“It was almost as if she knew, could feel what was going to happen,” he said, holding back tears. He received the news of her death four days later.

Police found Leon’s body Aug. 24 in the trunk of her maroon 1995 Ford Thunderbird, which had been abandoned near 26th and Ruiz streets. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Investigators said they were called to the West Side neighborhood after residents reported a foul odor coming from the vehicle. Residents complained that they had started calling police about the car days earlier.

Police have not identified a suspect in the case but friends and relatives said they want to know more about the man Leon was last seen with, her ex-boyfriend, Rafael Hernandez.

The night Leon’s body was found, police issued an appeal for the public’s help in locating Hernandez, 38, in connection with a 2010 domestic violence incident involving Leon.

He is still at large, wanted on two arrest warrants for assault with family violence in that incident, but police say they are treating it as a separate case and have not named him as a person of interest in Leon’s killing.

Authorities have not released much other information, citing the pending investigation. Attempts to reach Hernandez’s family were unsuccessful.

Leon’s friends and relatives recalled Hernandez as a man of two extreme natures — affable, respectable on one side; darker, violent and exceedingly jealous on the other. They said he was someone they had warned her not to trust.

“She had a care for him that was incomprehensible. She had a fear of him that was incomprehensible,” her father said. “She never wished him any harm.”

A search of public records shows that Hernandez had been sentenced to a year in jail for a 2007 charge of assault with bodily injury-family/household and was on probation for a 2008 charge of burglary of a habitation with intent to commit assault. Neither incident appears to involve Leon.

Sandra Almanza, 40, and Illeana Parral, 40, Leon’s co-workers at a cabinet-making company, said Leon would often tell them Hernandez abused her. They had rushed to comfort her when she once came to work with bruises across her face and neck. Still, she continued to return to him over the course of a tumultuous, off-and-on relationship that started in 2007, they said.

They could not tell if it was dread or affection that kept her going back.

“I would always tell her, ‘What ties you to him? You are not married. He does not help you with your son. He does not support you,’” Almanza said. “We just never understood what tied her to him.”

Almanza said she became one of Leon’s closest friends in the 10 years they knew each other. She said she and Leon had been at Sombras Night Club on the West Side the Saturday night before she disappeared and that Hernandez had unexpectedly shown up shortly before closing time and tagged along as they left.

Almanza told officers that Leon had seemed scared and did not want to leave with Hernandez but said she would to “avoid trouble,” according to a police report. She tried to persuade Leon to flag down two police officers on their way out, but the victim declined, the report states.

Weeks later, Almanza wept with remorse as she remembered the calls to Leon that went unanswered the next day. She said she wouldn’t have let Leon go home alone had her friend not insisted she would be fine.
“I miss my ‘flaca’ (skinny girl),” she said of Leon, through tears. “That’s what I used to call her. She was beautiful and a hard worker. To me, she is not dead.”

As published Oct. 24, 2011

Photo by Billy Calzada

 

Women play major roles in the drug trade

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
At the lowest level of the illegal drug trade are cases like that of Laura Trevino, her mother and two sisters.

The four women arrested in June allegedly stashed approximately 37 pounds of cocaine packages inside “girdles” three of them wore underneath their clothes. Authorities said they attempted to smuggle the narcotics through the B&M International Bridge.Court testimony later revealed Trevino had admitted to organizing the operation and would be paid $2,000 after they had crossed into the United States, a small percentage of the nearly $1 million estimated street value of the drugs.

The case was the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley. But among the roles women play in the illegal drug business, a majority of them, like Trevino and her family, still take a huge risk for a small cut of their load’s worth.

Women have had long-standing roles in Mexico’s illicit drug trade despite presumptions that in the country’s macho society the business has been entirely male-dominated. Many have also historically held powerful positions, though they have had to “pay their dues twice as hard” to move up the drug syndicate, officials and researchers said.

In the past, women in the narcotics trade tended to fall behind-the-scenes, but their roles have grown more prominent in recent years as their participation in all areas of the business has increased – and continues to rise.

To track the increase, researchers point to the number of women behind bars for drug-related crimes, which began to rise at alarming rates in the 1980s.

From 1990 to 1996, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 101 percent, according to a 1997 prisoner’s report from the Federal Bureau of Statistics. Since, the increase has slowed, rising only 3 percent by 2006, as the latest figures show.

However, the Sentencing Project estimates that the annual growth of female inmates, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasingly at nearly double the rate for men.

“Recently, women have been entering the business at increasing levels at every level of the drug cartel,” said Howard Campbell, anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “But most women in the trafficking business don’t get caught. So, incarceration and indictment rates may not fully speak to the issue of who is doing it.”

He found rising numbers of women incarcerated for drug-related offenses at U.S. and Mexican prisons, increases of women dying in drug violence and interviewed dozens of women for a study published in the winter edition of the Anthropological Quarterly.

Two key reasons account for the increases: Mexican drug cartels are at large and have grown in size and profitability, while poverty in Mexico and along the border remains high, Campbell said.

Women have then been able to expand their positions in the drug trade, where many find the lucrative opportunities to move up economically. Their position can serve as a vehicle to empowerment, Campbell said.
At the highest level of drug cartels in the recent limelight have been “queen pins” Enedina Arellano Felix and Sandra Avila Beltràn. Felix is alleged to have become one of the leaders of the Tijuana cartel across California’s border after her brothers were murdered.

Beltran, dubbed the “Queen of the Pacific,” was indicted on drug charges in Florida four years ago and is said to have developed smuggling routes through Mexico for a Colombian cartel. A beautiful woman, Beltran would ask to do her make-up before her court proceedings and gained even greater fame for her haughty and arrogant behavior.

More women have also become notorious brokers and money launderers. Large sums of money are laundered in a small street in Mexico City, where beautiful women in low-cut dresses provide currency exchanges for tourists, Campbell said.

However, the majority of women continue to fall into the lowest levels of the illegal drug trade, said Correctional Program Specialist Marueen Buell of the Prison’s Division for the National Institute of Corrections.
In the business, these women are known as “sirenas,” “las sanchas” and, as in the case of the allegations against the Trevino family, “mules.”

The most expandable and most essential group is the “mules.” They are the “laborers” who run the risk of moving the illegal narcotics from Mexico into the United States.

“There are risky, huge implications for carrying drugs, but there is a susceptibility among these women because they may not be as aware of these risks or the economic circumstances are so bad at home,” said Rosalie Pacula, director of Rand’s Policy Research Center.

Although not the case for all, the majority of women who enter the lower levels of the narcotics trade tend to be poor and living in desperate conditions, said Jasmine Taylor, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. As a growing number of them become the head of the household, they must provide for their families.

“So their life situation is used as an enticement to enter this line of work,” Taylor said. “Another way they join the drug trade is by being coerced by a male actors, husbands, boyfriends.”

While women might be entering the business in higher numbers, illegal drug organizations may have also increased their use of women as drug couriers in response to past law enforcement strategies, Pacula said. As technology becomes more advanced, smugglers need to find new, creative ways to get the drugs across.
Traffickers know women can play on gender stereotypes to avoid being questioned, researchers and law enforcement officials said. Women are also told to wear sexy clothing and flirt with officials.

“There have been more women, women with children and whole families [caught smuggling],” said Capt. Jack PeÐa with the Criminal Investigations Division for the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “Drug traffickers think that they can use women to cross the drugs because they may look less suspicious. But we are checking everyone.”

However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said smugglers are constantly changing their methods.

During various periods, teens and even senior citizens will be used to cross narcotics, said Roger Maier, U.S. CBP public affairs officer for El Paso.

“If you happen to see more instances of females caught with drug loads recently, it may not necessarily be indicative of an overall trend because we have seen it before and we will likely see it again,” said Rick Pauza, Laredo’s U.S. CBP public affairs officer.

Whether women are being used at higher rates also depends on the region smugglers are in and possibly the drug being crossed, Pacula said. The booming Mexican city of Tijuana across from southern California, for example, has a large population of young people from which drug-traffickers draw upon, she said.

Nevertheless, as the illicit drug trade expands in profitability, women are going to take the risk to enter into the trade by their own accord, Taylor said.

“Now in the last three years, the number of women searched has increased,” she said. “But money is still a strong motivator for women to join the business.”

As published Aug. 17, 2008