Mexico's Female Drug Lords
By Monica Campbell
Acela and her husband, Johnny Ramos, occasionally tag-teamed on cross-country drug runs.
Photo Credit: Shaul Schwarz/Reportage by Getty Images
Johnny's hard partying left Acela thousands of dollars in debt. She'd get by on her teacher's salary, but not in the lifestyle anywhere near the one her husband had provided. "I was ambitious," Acela admits, straightening out her tight-fitting slacks, her once-fetching figure gone. "Too ambitious. Traffickers enjoy privileges and command a certain respect in society." Barely a year after her husband's death, Acela called one of his associates and offered up her services.
She started out small, dealing to the city's affluent party crowd. "She looked desperate, running around in the middle of the night delivering drugs," Estrella says of her mother. "I told her, 'This is ridiculous. Let me help you.'" Of course, Estrella's motives weren't entirely selfless. Eking by as a manicurist, she resented the turn of eventsshe too once enjoyed the languid lifestyle of weekly manicures and gossiping with girlfriends. "For years we were used to the idea of easy money," Estrella says. "It was greedwe wanted those days back."
Within months, Acela and Estrella were business partners. Mom cut, weighed, and bagged the cocaine; daughter handled customer service. Like her mother, Estrella started out small, selling to musicians and executives. But the pair climbed the cartel rungs together, eventually handling payoffs to politicos and passing along information to cops on the take. A self-proclaimed daddy's girl, Estrella now felt closer to her mother than ever before, bound by the thrilling, treacherous work and its rewards. They pulled in $1000 a week, double what they made at their day jobs. Then they frittered it all away on expensive clothes and all-night outings at plush restaurants and clubs. "We thought we were untouchable," Estrella says.
It went on like this for nearly two years, until Estrella took up with a crooked cop who doubled as an informant for one of the local drug gangs. Against her mother's advice, Estrella invited him to hang out inside her home, where she fielded calls from her clients. Shortly after, police busted Acela as she was delivering coke to her daughter's home. She was sentenced to four months in a Mazatlán prison. While bribing prosecutors for a reduced sentence is common practice in parts of Mexico, neither of the Ramos women will comment on how Acela secured such an unusually lenient sentence.
The arrest should have served as a warning to Estrella, but the cash proved too compelling. While her mother was in prison, Estrella continued dealing and doled out cash to cops until there was nothing left to give. In 2004, a month after her mother's release, Estrella was pulled over while driving, charged with distribution, and sentenced to 40 months in prison. "I couldn't pay the bribe when I was arrested," Estrella says.
Since her release from jail in April 2008, Estrella has opened up a small salon called Star Beauty (estrella means "star" in Spanish), while her mother, now retired, spends her days watching telenovelas. "I'm trying to teach my daughter the value of an honest living," Estrella insists, noting how difficult that is in a society subsumed by narcocultura. Estrella's daughter, now 11, rattles off the names of Mexico's top drug lords with the same giddy delight that American girls her age devote to the Jonas Brothers. Will Estrella ever deal again? She digests the question for a long while, forgetting to ash her cigarette. "The idea that it's a bad thing to do sort of wears off," Estrella explainsbefore admitting that she threw away four years of her life for a few luxuries. "It's twisted, but that's how things play out here."
Monica Campbell is a California-based journalist who reports on Mexico for The Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek.