TIJUANA - There was something odd about the young woman who flew in alone from Guanajuato state. Her face was thin, but her body was not. When she went to claim her luggage at A.L. Rodriguez International Airport, Mexican federal agents pulled her aside and discovered her secret.
Beneath a loosefitting red outfit, the slender 31-year-old had concealed more than 10 pounds of heroin, a quantity that would be worth at least $400,000 on the U.S. retail market.
Fabiola Flores Sandria would seem an unlikely drug smuggler. A single mother of two, she had no criminal record before her March 17 arrest with 26,000 pesos - about $2,300 - and five packets of a dense, dark-coffee-colored paste strapped to her body. But this was her fifth such mission to Tijuana on behalf of a drug ring - apparently all-female - based in Apatzingan, Michoacan, according to Mexican law enforcement authorities.
Growing numbers of women are being recruited as drug couriers, they say. The women typically come from central Mexican states such as Michoacan, Nayarit, Guerrero - where marijuana and heroin poppies are grown in abundance largely to supply the U.S. demand.
The women are often single mothers with low incomes, easy prey for the offers of drug-trafficking groups seeking to move their product to the border.
"They started telling me that I would get ahead, that I could fix my house," said Rosa Maria Morales Rivera, 43, who had been supporting five children on her hotel-maid wages. "I wouldn't have to be killing myself in the hotel, washing and making up rooms and ironing when my back pain was unbearable."
Amid the spectacular headlines of the drug war, these women are overlooked. Their capture merits only passing mention in news accounts. No one celebrates their exploits in narcocorridos. They're cut off by the people who sent them, and the women rarely speak out, fearful of repercussions for those back home. They spend years behind bars and are lucky to have families still waiting when they get out.
They are the drug trade's beasts of burden, women known as mulas, or mules, who tape packets to their bodies or carry them in suitcases with hidden compartments. And when they are caught, the punishment is severe. Because they crossed a state line, the minimum - and typical - sentence is 10 years, though they can face up to 25. Prosecutors and agents say it is what they deserve.
"I wasn't thinking of the consequences; I wasn't thinking of anything," said Bertha Alicia Urena, 47, of Tepalcatepec, Michoacan, behind bars since her arrest at the Tijuana airport Dec. 29, 1995.
The words flowed quickly during a recent interview at Tijuana's La Mesa State Penitentiary as the widowed mother of 11 told of the nephew who recruited her, the fear she felt as she boarded a bus to Guadalajara, then flew for the first time, to Tijuana, with a package concealed between her legs. Her voice broke only when she spoke about her children.
"I was scared to death," said Urena, who had been working as a cook at a Catholic convent school. "But I never thought that they could catch me and I'd do so much time."
A U.S. film last year, "Maria Full of Grace," described the perils faced by young Colombian women who swallow sealed heroin pellets and fly to New York City. Written and directed by Joshua Marston, the movie is based on the real-life stories of women from rural Colombia recruited to carry drugs.
The details are different - the women in the film don't end up in prison - but the motivations of the Mexican women echo those of their Colombian counterparts. The seven female inmates who told their stories recently at La Mesa had been a hotel maid, a school janitor, a waitress, a school cafeteria cook, a tortilla-shop employee, a vendor of beauty supplies and a food-stand worker.
Two professed innocence, insisting they did not know they were carrying drugs. But the others spoke of poverty and desperation, and the dream that led them to commit the crime: a house that doesn't leak, medical help for a family member, a used pickup for getting to work and driving around with friends.
"We do this sometimes out of necessity, even though that doesn't make it right," Urena said.
They said they are trying to make the best of their new lives inside the three-story concrete cellblock known as Building 7. Some have learned to read, others to knit. They are studying the Bible, taking exercise classes, doing housework, watching television, weeping as they follow the Mexican soap opera "La Madrastra," which is about a woman who spent 20 years in jail for a crime she didn't commit.
Bertha Felix, 36, of Tepic, Nayarit, agreed to carry just over a pound of heroin for the promise of nearly $1,100. She said she was earning a little more than $50 a week at her janitor's job and needed to pay for medical treatment for her mother, who was dying of lung cancer. So on Nov. 30, 2001, she took a flight from Guadalajara with two packets of a dark-brown substance that a stranger had attached to her abdomen in a hotel room in Tepic.
"I knew it was something bad," said Felix, but she didn't know it was heroin.
It was her first trip, she said. And it was her last.
She is a small woman with the sturdy, graceful build of a gymnast who keeps photographs of the son and daughter she said goodbye to six years ago, telling them she was going on an overnight errand.
Today the former elementary school janitor is serving a 10-year sentence and shares a cell with six women. Felix stays fit with aerobics classes, volunteers in the women's cafeteria and earns money by washing the clothes of other inmates. Last year, she said proudly, she was able to send home 500 pesos, about $45.
Since Felix's arrest, her mother has died and her daughter, now 20, has become a mother. Her son, 15, has stayed in school and earns money teaching soccer.
"The hardest thing is not seeing my children," said Felix, who dreams of one day working in the United States.
She is one of some 400 female inmates housed in Building 7 at La Mesa; the total prison population is 5,800. There are close to three dozen women like her who are serving sentences for the federal crime of transporting a narcotic across state lines. Thirty-seven more are there for the lesser crime of possession.
Francisco Jimenez, director of the prison, says the women got the punishment they deserve.
"They poisoned a lot of people with what they've done," he said. "Drugs tear apart the social fabric. They destroy families, break up marriages; they cause young people to go astray."
To reach the U.S. border from the fields of central Mexico and slip past police roadblocks and checkpoints, smugglers use a wide range of methods. Drugs may come hidden inside compartments of cars and trucks, or mailed in packages carried by couriers, or smuggled by bus and airline. They may be flown inside private planes or carried up the coast by speedboats or fishing trawlers.
Traffickers must find ways to move marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crystal methamphetamine. Because of its bulk, marijuana is often driven inside large vehicles such as trucks and tractor-trailers, say Mexican investigators. Cocaine typically is shipped in smaller vehicles, they say. But because of its light weight and high value, heroin is almost always moved to the border by airplane, often by passengers who conceal it under their clothes.
A few years ago, female smugglers were a rarity. But now they make up about half of arrests, said a Mexican law enforcement source.
"They say women are more reliable than men: They don't talk. They keep a low profile. They're loyal," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the strict public-comment policy of federal law enforcement agencies.
Women occasionally will claim they were coerced into carrying the narcotics, and one veteran prosecutor said the women are sometimes enticed through a boyfriend. But more often, they are women who are struggling alone to support themselves and their families, said Francisco Martin Hernandez, head of the public defender's office in Tijuana.
"They are used by criminal organizations, exploited because of their poverty and their need, and while many of them fall, the powerful heads are rarely touched," Hernandez said.
Defending them is difficult because they are caught in the act, with the drugs strapped to their bodies, he said. But even prosecutors agree that occasionally women are duped into transporting the drugs. One of them told of the 2003 arrest of a woman carrying 300 grams of heroin inside a tortilla maker; charges were eventually dropped after she convinced a judge that she didn't know the drugs were inside.
Last year, Josefina Ceron Rodriguez, 36, of Atoyac de Alvarez, Guerrero, was unable to persuade the court that she didn't know two packets of heroin were in her suitcase when she flew to Tijuana. The widowed mother of three, who is learning to read and write, said she was going to the border last Sept. 12 to meet a friend who promised he would help her cross for work in the United States. She said she needed money to buy an $800 leg brace for her brain-damaged daughter, Luz Elena, 7.
But instead, she is at La Mesa, serving a 10-year sentence and longing for home: "I dream that I am back there, and I wake up and, well, I am here."
Fabiola Flores first told agents that threats to harm her family prompted her to fly to Tijuana with packets of heroin. Two people had approached her in a market in Mexico City, and she agreed to the trip, she said.
But Mexican investigators who later interrogated her tell a different story. This was her fifth trip to the border, they say. To get her load, Flores would take a bus to Apatzingan, Michoacan. The city of 100,000 is at the center of La Tierra Caliente, an area widely known for drug production.
Arriving in Apatzingan, Flores walked from the central bus station to a house 10 blocks away, they say. At the house, Flores would encounter only women, according to the investigation. The ringleader was a woman she knew only as "La Lupe" or "La Guera." There, she was fitted with the packets, given 30,000 pesos in cash - about $2,700 - and told to take a bus back to Mexico City and then to Leon, Guanajuato. From there, she would fly to Tijuana and deliver the packets to a woman who would find her at the airport.
Because Flores has not yet been sentenced, state officials would not grant access for an interview at La Mesa State Penitentiary, and attempts to contact her private attorney were unsuccessful. Baja California prison officials allowed interviews only with those who have been convicted, including two sisters from Apatzingan.
Rosa Maria Morales has been in jail since April 11, 1999, when she was caught on what she said was her third trip to Tijuana. She said she was her family's sole support after her husband abandoned them, and their small house was precarious shelter.
"When it rained, we weren't sure if we were inside or outside because we'd get wet from above and from below where the water seeped in," she said.
Relatives were too poor to help, but then a former neighbor stepped forward and connected Morales with a group of smugglers. She offers few details, except to say that she went to a house where women fitted the packets of drugs to her body. She would fly from Morelia to Tijuana, take a cab to a hotel and turn over the packets to a male contact.
"I knew it was drugs, but I didn't know what kind," said Morales, who looks older than her 43 years. "I never saw it."
Two and a half years later, on Nov. 28, 2001, it was her younger sister's turn. Divorced, with two children to support, Maria Elena Morales said she couldn't make ends meet. They were living with her father, and she hoped for a house of their own.
At a party, she met a couple who offered to help her out, paying her $2,500 to fly with drugs to the border. She was arrested on her second trip, she said; a Mexican military report of her arrest states that she was carrying eight packets containing 11.3 pounds of heroin and 4.8 pounds of crystal methamphetamine.
Maria Elena Morales said she never heard from the couple who recruited her. Now she shares Cell 205-C with her older sister and four other women, including Bertha Urena, the mother of 11 from Tepalcatepec.
The older sister is hoping to get out of jail under a new federal law that allows early release for those convicted of certain crimes after they have served three-fifths of their sentences. The younger one has been petitioning for a transfer to Michoacan so she can be closer to home.
"I try to make the best of it," said Maria Elena, who plays basketball, volleyball and soccer.
Trim and athletic at 38, she exuded the energy of an aerobics teacher - until she spoke about her son and daughter.
"I thought it was only going to be two or three days, and I would be back together with them," she said as she wept.
For Urena, getting caught was a tragedy but also an opportunity. Since arriving at La Mesa, she has learned to read and write. She said she has found God, worships daily and shares her faith her fellow female inmates.
"I am a new person, with a new outlook," she said.
Because men and women were able to mix at the prison when Urena first arrived, she met a man and had her 11th child behind bars. He was released a year after they met and has taken charge of their son. The two are in Tijuana, waiting for her to join them tomorrow, when she expects to be released seven months early for good behavior. Her 10 older children are also waiting, in Michoacan and Tijuana.
Urena still loves to cook and hopes to open a food stand once she's out.
"It's a very beautiful story," she said. "I thank God every day and every minute."
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