A WOMAN who succeeds in a field dominated by men is always intriguing to the public, but when that field happens to be big-time cocaine trafficking and the woman is graced with charm and beauty, a criminal celebrity is born.
Since her arrest last month, Sandra Avila Beltran, better known as The Queen of the Pacific, has been getting the kind of press here that would have made Jesse James envious. Mexicans are closely following the case against her and the efforts to extradite her to the US, where she is wanted in Florida.
Prosecutors here say Avila Beltran, a shapely, raven-haired, 46-year-old with a taste for high fashion, has played an important role in forging a federation of drug traffickers in western Sinaloa state as well as creating an alliance between them and Colombian suppliers.
Along the way, she has seduced many drug kingpins and upper-echelon police officers, becoming a powerful force in the cocaine world through a combination of ruthless business sense, a criminal's wiles and her sex appeal, prosecutors say.
It is a measure of her importance in the Mexican underworld that some Tijuana musicians have written a song in her honour. This "narco-corrido" extols her virtues as "a top lady who is a key part of the business". It has been played over and over on radio since her arrest.
Police say Avila Beltran was born into the trade. She is the niece of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, an important trafficker from Guadalajara serving a long sentence for smuggling and the murder of an American drug-enforcement agent, Enrique Camarena.
Her list of romantic conquests, police say, include important members of the Sinaloa cartel such as Ismael Zambada, known as El Mayo, and Ignacio Coronel, known as Nacho. Both are powerful leaders in the Sinaloa organisation.
Her lovers have fared better than her legal husbands. She was at one time married to Jose Luis Fuentes, the commander of the federal police in Sinaloa, who was executed gangland style.
Later she married Rodolfo Lopez Amavizca, the commander of the now-defunct National Institute for the Combat against Drugs. He was murdered in 2000 by a gunman in a hotel in Hermosillo, the capital of north-western Sonora state.
Of all her love affairs, however, it was her long-time union with a reputed Colombian trafficker, Juan Diego Espinosa, who calls himself The Tiger, that cemented her position in the upper echelons of the Mexican underworld.
Together, the two of them forged deals between Mexican and Colombian traffickers in the late 1990s and 2000. She took control of shipping cocaine from the North Valley Cartel in Colombia to ports in western Mexico, thus earning her name The Queen of the Pacific. At the same time, Avila Beltran established several legitimate businesses that investigators suspect were used to launder money — a string of tanning salons and a thriving real estate company with more than 200 properties in Sonora state.
But her luck began to run out in December 2001 when the authorities seized a tuna boat, The Macel, in the port of Manzanillo and found more than 8.2 tonnes of cocaine on board, valued at $US80 million ($A88.7 million).
Six months later, her teenage son was kidnapped in Guadalajara and she slipped up. She contacted the authorities for help. She eventually asked the police to stay out of the way, handled the negotiations with the kidnappers herself and got her son back after 17 days.
But prosecutors say the $US5 million ransom demand raised their suspicions about her income. They started investigating her and, by July 2002, they found evidence linking her to the tuna boat shipment. They also linked her to other members of Espinosa's family, among them a woman who was arrested at the Mexico City airport carrying about $US1.5 million.
Avila Beltran eluded arrest and went underground. She lived quietly in Mexico City with Espinosa in a middle-class neighbourhood and went by the name of Daniela Garcia Chavez.
She did not drop her taste for luxury. She drove a BMW and frequented hair salons favoured by television celebrities.
Court documents say that in March 2004 she was indicted on separate drug smuggling charges in Miami along with several members of the Espinosa family. But US agents made no headway towards her arrest.
Eventually, last year, a US judge ordered that the arrest warrants for two other defendants be quashed in an effort to get them to co-operate and help locate Avila Beltran. The judge pointed out that she had been a fugitive in Mexico for years.
On September 28, more than 30 Mexican federal agents swarmed into a diner where she was having coffee and arrested her.
She coolly asked the agents to let her freshen her make-up before the police filmed her transfer to jail. On the videotape, she tossed her hair and smiled for the camera, strutting in tight jeans and spiked heels on the arm of an agent.
NEW YORK TIMES
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