Life and Times of Female Drug Kingpins

The story of Raquel Santos de Oliveira (pictured above) is extremely uncommon—it is not often we hear about female’s being cocaine kingpins. Raquel took the position following the death of her significant other and the original kingpin, Ednaldo “Naldo” de Souza, in a bloody shoot out with police in 1988. As Naldo’s other half, Raquel was assumed to be his successor as drug boss.” Someone came to see me with a bag of 300 grams of cocaine, marijuana, and guns, and instructions from him to carry on his work. I went to get help, and that was when I started as boss.” Raquel rose to the position and above the attitudes and treatment of women in Brazil during that time. Now at 50 years old she is respected by both men and women in her community. According to Raquel, “being a drug trafficker’s woman was like being a socialite” and often women tried to get pregnant by them.

“Even a car can be treated with care and affection, but women were just use and thrown away”.

Considering how women were often gang raped and treated as property it is no surprise they sought other alternatives to improve their lives. Raquel’s relationship with Naldo surpassed that of anything either of them could have ever imagined. She called it “supernatural”. Being so close to him, she experienced the man behind the badass, tough exterior and witnessed the severely depressed man who she held in her arms every night. Men at that time (and still today) dominated the drug business. Raquel understood that she needed to be tough in order to gain the respect of the 19 men she was in charge of. Even as a child, she was carrying around guns and tying her hair back to survive the brutality of life in Rocinha, Brazil. She was not afraid of anything and kept strict rules as the boss. Like Naldo, however, Raquel harbored inner struggles behind her tough exterior. After Naldo’s death, Raquel turned to using cocaine as a way to anesthetize herself and cope with pain she was feeling. When she witnessed someone murdered right in front her, Raquel requested to leave the gang entirely.

As a respected member of Rocinha’s community, her wish was granted. The road following her time as kingpin was not an easy one either. Raquel struggled with addiction and sought therapy following her retirement from the drug business. She has since written a based-on-true-events fiction novel about her experiences. She also is currently studying for her Masters.

“I want to get into politics and transform the drug treatment system in Rocinha”.

Raquel’s story is uncommon, however more and more women are seen to hold the role as boss in drug cartels. Just this last July, Time reports that a woman now leads a Mexican drug cartel. Enedina Arellano Felix “could be running the remnants of the Tijuana Cartel that traffics cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth over the world’s busiest border crossing into California” (Time). This leaves me wondering… maybe women are better for the job?

Both Raquel and Enedina took over their respective drug cartels after the deaths of previous bosses. Raquel took over Rocinha after Naldo was killed and Enedina took over Tijuana after seven previous male leaders (most of whom were family) were either killed or incarcerated. Does this say something about male cartel bosses? Are they too “badass” for their own good? Mexican journalist Javier Valdez states that “the women who rise high in [the drug world] are very rare. They have to be extremely intelligent, talented and brave”. Raquel knew how to keep strict rules and hold the respect of the men she managed, and Enedina specializes in making money and alliances—she previously studied accounting at a private university.

It is fascinating how more and more women (though still very rare) have worked towards higher ranking within the drug business to be drug kingpins themselves. It will be interesting to see how their management of these large drug gangs will compare to that of their male predecessors. For the rest of the world, the illegal drug business and its ongoings is not easy to discuss without stereotyping them based on what we see in social media, movies, and television shows. Stereotypically, male kingpins are represented as hot-headed and trigger happy (such as Tuco Salamanca in Breaking Bad), or they are terrifyingly stoic and composed (such as Esteban Reyes in Weeds). A common, Katzian, opinion is that men are too “badass” and their ego’s often get them in dangerous situations and expose them to law enforcement or death by others in the business more “badass” then them.

Female drug bosses are just as uncommon in media and television as they are in the real world—my mind turns to Nancy Botwin of Weeds. It is important to note how even in a media context, women in the drug business are highly sexualized. Often women can utilize their beauty in a way to assert their dominance as kingpin. In Raquel and Enedina’s stories, they are often credited for their beauty. Stereotypically, women are very skilled in social behaviors and can talk their way out and into things. Perhaps employing better social/people skills works to an advantage for women in the drug business.

The real questions are: What are women doing differently than men in running real world drug cartels? What can law enforcement expect to change when pursuing them? Stay tuned…

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