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Female Drug Smugglers on the U.S.-Mexico Border: Gender, Crime, and Empowerment

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 81, Number 1, Winter 2008
pp. 233-267 | 10.1353/anq.2008.0004



Women's involvement in drug trafficking in recent years has expanded dramatically. Yet there are few studies of female drug smugglers, the causes of female involvement in smuggling, and the impact of smuggling on women's lives specifically. In this article, I provide in-depth ethnographic interviews and observations of a broad spectrum of female drug smugglers on the U.S.-Mexico border. Moving beyond stereotypes, I examine how drug trafficking affects women's relationships with men and their position in society.

Economic and cultural factors strongly shape women's involvement in drug smuggling and the effects of smuggling on their lives, but these factors and effects vary significantly, depending on women's social class position and place within drug organizations. High-level female drug smugglers may be attracted to the power and mystique of drug trafficking and may achieve a relative independence from male dominance. Middle-level women in smuggling organizations obtain less freedom vis-à-vis men but may manipulate gender stereotypes to their advantage in the smuggling world. Low-level mules also perform (or subvert) traditional gender roles as a smuggling strategy, but receive less economic benefit and less power, though in some cases some independence from male domestic control. A fourth category of women do not smuggle drugs but are negatively impacted by the male smugglers with whom they are associated.

I argue that drug smuggling frequently leads to female victimization, especially at the lowest and middle levels of drug trafficking organizations. However, it is also, in the case of high-level and some low-level and middle-level smugglers, a vehicle for female empowerment.