Women Are Rising to Power in the Legendary Sinaloa Cartel
CULIACAN, Mexico — Emma Coronel first learned to fire a gun when her husband, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was extradited from Mexico to face drug trafficking charges that would eventually put him away for life. With El Chapo taken out of Mexico’s criminal landscape for good, Coronel felt like she needed to learn how to protect herself.
“No one here gave a shit that she was Chapo’s wife once he was extradited,” a source close to the Sinaloa Cartel told VICE World News.
Coronel, who feared for the life of her two young daughters as well as her own, has since turned herself in and pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in the United States. But although she is the Sinaloa Cartel’s most visible woman, she was far from the most powerful or resourceful to pepper its ranks. That achievement goes to a woman whose name—Guadalupe Fernández Valencia—is virtually unknown. Another woman, Luz Irene Fajardo Campos, ran an independent trafficking ring out of the Sinaloa Cartel’s heartland.
Though the most visible women in the drug trade tend to fit into Coronel’s mold, across the state of Sinaloa, where the culture of the drug trade world is strongest in Mexico, women’s experiences vary enormously, as does their level of participation and agency.
A growing number of women are getting trained to defend themselves—like Coronel—from the insidious misogyny and violence that characterizes Mexico’s narco-cultura. Other women are even signing up to become killers for the cartels themselves, and boot camps run by criminal groups to train killers are increasingly being attended by women.
Organized crime in Mexico has led to myriad lived experiences for these women: Some have been empowered by organized crime; others have been victimized, cowed, and terrified. Many women have experienced all of those things, but few have escaped the impact and repercussions of the drug trade. Their stories—laid out here, many for the first time—reveal a complicated criminal landscape.
Mouth wide shut
Standing alone at the front of a Chicago courtroom, Fernández Valencia looked like a vulnerable, scared grandmother. She wore orange prison overalls, and spoke Spanish through a white face mask and an interpreter. She was 61 years old, and by that day in court this past August, she’d been in custody since 2016.
“I want to take advantage of this opportunity to ask forgiveness from my children and from my family,” she told the judge, before she was handed a 10-year prison sentence. More than two years prior, she had pleaded guilty, tearfully, to a sobering litany of drug trafficking charges, including a massive drug distribution conspiracy and money laundering. Fernández Valencia spent a total of more than three decades in the drug business, a chunk of it working for El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel. Virtually unknown, she is the highest-ranking female Sinaloa Cartel operative known to date.
Fernández Valencia’s was the only woman’s name on the charge sheet that helped send El Chapo to prison, and prosecutors claim she worked closely with Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar, known as Jesús or “Alfredillo,” one of the kingpin's sons.
Alfredillo remains at large in Culiacán, and enquiries about Fernández Valencia by VICE World News bore little fruit by way of people who knew her and might be willing to talk about her: The risks were simply too high with her boss still at large—El Chapo’s sons have a reputation as irreverent, violent, and entitled millennials. Court documents describe Fernández Valencia as Jesús’ “lieutenant.” They worked together on the entire drug distribution process, from start to finish, until she was arrested in Culiacán a month after El Chapo’s final capture in January 2016.
Mobile phone footage that made the rounds showed Fernández Valencia being led down a quiet street by two female officers. She wore black pants and a leopard-print shirt, and no force was used by the officers flanking her as she climbed submissively into a police truck, her long hair pulled to the side in a plait that hung over her shoulder. The footage seemed to have been taken by a police officer. There was no media present at her arrest. No perp walk.
By pleading guilty to the charges against her, Fernández Valencia avoided trial, and much of her story remains in the shadows. But public records betray some of her criminal career, spanning three decades.
Originally from the southern, humid state of Michoacán, Fernández Valencia holds childhood memories of lush green mountains and avocado and lime fields, no doubt sullied by the drama going on around her back then. When she was a teenager, the crime lords moved in. They plundered the heroin poppy and marijuana plantations, holding humble farmers to ransom. Eventually, the drug gangs would take over entire villages like hers, raping or marrying many of the younger girls. They would grow to dominate not just the lucrative production of heroin and crystal meth but also the mineral and gold mines dotted around the state, as well as the avocado and lime industries.
Fernández Valencia escaped for a time, to the U.S., undocumented, like millions of her countrymen and women before her. That’s when she got her first taste of the drug business, dealing bags of dope on the streets of California. She was convicted in the late 1990s and deported back to Mexico after doing her time.
She set up home in Culiacán in 2009 and started working with her brother, Manuel, exploiting her existing drug contacts in California to send some 30 kilos of cocaine a week to Los Angeles, according to court documents. But when Manuel got arrested in 2010, she moved her family to Guadalajara and tried to go straight.
It didn’t work.
Fernández Valencia was approached there by someone described as “Individual B” in her plea agreement. That could well have been Alfredillo, El Chapo’s son, whom Manuel had been working with. Whoever “he” was, he told her that her family wasn’t safe and “invited” her to return to Culiacán under his protection and work for him selling his drugs.
Fernández Valencia agreed, and it isn’t clear from the court documents whether the “invitation” to join was optional.
By 2016, she couldn’t hide any longer. Following her arrest and extradition, Fernández decided to plead guilty, skip a public trial, and cooperate with U.S. law enforcement. By the time she got to the U.S., in November 2017, El Chapo’s trial was already well underway. She could have also worked with U.S. law enforcement during her time in the Mexican prison awaiting extradition, sharing what she knew. Fernández Valencia was ultimately given a 10-year sentence—she’d already done seven by the time it got handed down—reflecting her “substantial” cooperation, as prosecutors called it.
And there’s every chance that decision may come back to haunt her later when she walks free. If she doesn't enter witness protection, she could be deported back to Mexico, which would be a death sentence for her.
Cooperation vs. trial
If the risks of blabbing in prison have always been high, keeping one’s mouth shut also comes with a price.
Unlike Fernández Valencia, Luz Irene Fajardo Campos ran her own drug trafficking cell that was associated with but not part of the Sinaloa Cartel, between 2010 and 2016, according to prosecutors. A trained lawyer, she was a middle-class girl from an agricultural family near Cosala in rural Sinaloa, but she got into the drug business with her two sons. Her text messages with trafficking associates were peppered with photos of her with her young grandchildren and friends, posing and smiling, doing the peace sign.
Fajardo Campos was arrested in Bogota, Colombia, in April 2017 during a business trip and eventually extradited to the U.S. Shortly after that, her two young-adult sons, whose names remain unknown, were picked up in the city of Hermosillo, in the state of Sonora next door to Sinaloa, VICE World News learned from two sources close to Fajardo Campos’s family and case. They reappeared in their burned-out truck, their bodies dismembered and charred. It’s unclear whether they were killed by a rival trafficking organization over their continuing illegal enterprise or their murder was a message from the powers that be in Sinaloa for their mother to keep her mouth shut. That was the consequence, intended or not, and she refused to plead guilty and went to trial.
During the proceedings, prosecutors highlighted the keys of cocaine she trafficked—branded with the words JENCA—and the small planes she bought and commandeered through Honduras loaded with cocaine. One photo showed a light airplane that had crashed, allegedly into the Honduran jungle, killing the pilot and losing half a ton of dope.
Fajardo’s mental state deteriorated behind bars, according to court documents that show she was sent for psychiatric evaluation. It’s likely that the slaughter of her sons weighed heavily on her. She was convicted and slapped with a 22-year sentence in July 2021, substantially more than Fernández Valencia.
Her lawyer, Robert Feitel, told VICE World News that hers was a “Greek tragedy.”
“Who is going to see two of their kids kidnapped and murdered and then do anything to put the rest of their family at risk? Nobody is going to do that,” said Feitel. Fajardo Campos’ parents and at least one sister still live in Sinaloa, as do many of her extended family.
It will now likely be the better part of two decades before she sees any of them again. But having stayed schtum, it will be safer for her to return home to Culiacán one day. Fernández Valencia wouldn’t dare.
Her long, white nail tips made it a little awkward to load the magazine of the Glock 25. She pressed the small, .380-caliber bullets into the spring mechanism, then slid it into the chamber of the gun handle.
She raised her arms, her pale skin and perfectly straightened, jet-black hair protected from the scorching midday sun by a white, wide-brimmed hat. Clutching the Glock with both hands, her right forefinger rested on the side.
“When you’re ready,” said the man standing next to her.
She took aim at the head-and-shoulders silhouette 10 feet in front of her, and then fired. It was the first shot of her life; the bullet found its target in the throat area of the cardboard target.
“It felt good,” said Tessa. “At first I was nervous about what it would feel like in my body, but then it felt good to shoot, and it got easier and easier.”
Tessa, 45, is a lifelong resident of Culiacán. Fed up with both the generalized and gender-focused violence imposed, in part, by the city’s criminal bosses and the narco-culture they’ve spawned, she and other women in the area have decided to take matters, and weapons, into their own hands.
Tessa and two other women were on a legal shooting range under the supervision of Abel Jacobo Miller, a licensed weapons owner and instructor, on a sun-bleached Sunday morning in May. Legal gun ownership in Mexico is both rare and expensive, and his courses are popular. Fajardo Campos chose to defend herself rather than plead guilty and put her family at risk.
Jacobo Miller is hell-bent on trying to convince many ordinary women in Culiacán to learn self-defense.
“Sixty percent of those who come are women,” said Jacobo Miller. Female participation, he added, continues to increase.
“A 60-kilo woman will struggle to confront a 90-kilo man with her fists. But with this,” he said, brandishing a Glock, "with a gun, we’re equals.”
Tessa, who is an accountant and mother of three, decided to take the course after she was robbed twice at gunpoint.
“I wanted to have the confidence to do it,” she said.
“With things the way they are, with so much violence, there’s no room for terror. Now, it’s about security and keeping us safe,” she told me.
Jacobo Miller, also known by his friends and followers as “Master,” is on a mission to prove that if women can change their mental attitude, they’re capable of defending themselves with anything, from a car key to a pen.
The misogynist narco-culture permeates every level of cartel life in Sinaloa, the Mexican state most synonymous with the drug trade. The abduction and brutal murder of women there is common, and some 10 women are killed across Mexico every day because of their gender, according to women’s groups.
Beatriz Estrada, who works with female victims of violence for the government of Sinaloa, said that when she asks women why they don’t leave their violent partners (some of whom are in the drug business), most reply they don’t know what they would do to look after themselves and their children.
“They’re taught to be submissive,” she said, adding that she spends a lot of her time trying to convince women that they can learn to support themselves and their kids.
Across town from the shooting range the day before, more women gathered in a gym on the outskirts of the city to learn basic self-defense techniques. Many of those there had suffered heinous levels of gendered violence.
Maria Lopez, who asked VICE World News not to use her real name because she didn’t want her family to learn what had happened to her, said she was kidnapped in a restaurant in broad daylight by a group of young cartel henchmen. She was held captive for four days, along with some friends of hers. During that time, she said she was raped repeatedly. “And not just by one of them. By all of them.”
After the first few days in captivity, she said, she started asking the men what they wanted sexually, and how, so that they’d stop beating her when they raped her.
“You have to go with the flow to survive,” she said.
Kathleen, a slight, blonde woman with blue eyes and arms dotted with tattoos, said she was attacked by her boyfriend six months earlier when she was at his house with him and his parents.
“He stormed into the bathroom and got me into a stranglehold. I was so shocked I could only put my hand on his hand—I was suffocating,” she said. He let her go and she fell to the floor, where he proceeded to start kicking her in the ribs until his parents rushed in to intervene. Her own family subsequently blamed her for the attack, she said, accusing her of asking for trouble by being at her boyfriend’s house at that time of night.
Jacobo Miller showed the women how to get out of a stranglehold, and shouted, “You can’t think that you’re not going to stab your husband! He’s strangling you! He’s trying to kill you!” He and his wife, Ana, who have three daughters, are determined to change the mindset of the women of Culiacán.
Ana will never forget the afternoon now widely known as Black Thursday, when she was stuck in traffic with her three daughters. “Suddenly I saw people getting out of their cars, grabbing their children, and running away,” she recalled. Then a young man standing on the edge of the road, wearing a black mask, started firing a Barrett rifle into the air.
“I was hysterical with fear,” she remembered.
That day—October 17, 2019—a war broke out between the government and cartel henchmen in the heart of Culiacán after army officers attempted to arrest one of El Chapo’s sons, Ovidio. The episode, which resulted in the government having to release Guzmán when it was outnumbered and outgunned by cartel henchmen, was a clear indication of who governs the city, and a humiliation for the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The cultural and criminal context of Culiacán means that the mentality and ability to push back against violence, or use it, could be considered a survival skill. A woman who asked to be called Luma, age 47, said she was raped by a group of men, and when she eventually got the courage to tell her husband, he told her he was ashamed of her.
“We’ve been raised as princesses,” she said. “But we need to learn how to be warriors.”
_This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.