The Tragic Consequences For Women Who Live The "Narco-Lifestyle"

Photo: Katie Orlinsky
Pope Francis delivered an emotional mass in the border city of Ciudad Juarez on Wednesday, calling for more action to help those who have suffered from the violence and chaos caused by the ongoing War on Drugs in Mexico.

“Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts… open to his call heard in the suffering faces of countless men and women,” he said. “No more death! No more exploitation! There is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance.”

Some of those victims filled the seats in a crowd of 200,000 worshipers gathered to hear the Pope speak. But other people closely impacted by the drug war's violence were across town during the mass — behind bars in the city's notorious facility for female prisoners.

The number of women imprisoned for federal crimes in Mexico has boomed in recent years — increasing more than 400% between 2007 and 2010, according to a study by Mexico's National Women's Institute. An estimated 80% of the women incarcerated in El Cereso, in Ciudad Juarez, were convicted of drug-related crimes. The Pope himself visited the prison as part of his trip, reportedly telling inmates that only locking people up isn't the solution to Mexico's rampant violence.

The profiles of the female inmates of El Cereso go beyond the "beautiful narco-girlfriend, or the glamorous yet dangerous 'Queenpin'" role that has become prevalent in pop culture depictions of the drug war, according to Katie Orlisnky, a photographer who has documented the impact of the drug trade on women. They've worked as "humble spies, smugglers, lookouts, decoys, and bait," Orlinsky says. A dearth of economic opportunities in a city where crime and drug gangs have become commonplace leaves some women with few other options. In many cases, violence, fear and coercion are also factors.

"Women fending for themselves in a shattered economy, many of them widowed in the violence, are increasingly drawn into criminal activity, such as drug trafficking and kidnapping, which some see as the only options available to support their families," Orlinsky writes in the introduction to her photo series, The Juarez Women's Prison. "The prison population increasingly includes young women who were coerced or manipulated into committing crimes, or women simply guilty of being with a boyfriend or family member in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Before the Pope's mass, Orlinsky shared the stories and images of some of these women with Refinery29. See more, ahead.
Editor's note: This story has been updated following the Pope's visit to Juarez and El Cereso prison with additional details and reporting.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
Ciudad Juarez is one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. "In Juarez, violence and criminal activity permeates everyday life. The middle-aged lady selling fried potatoes doused in chili sauce on the street corner could actually be making her money as a lookout for a drug cartel," Orlinsky wrote. "The mother driving to visit her children’s grandmother in a distant town could have hidden thousands of pesos of dirty money in a diaper bag. The teenage girl crossing the border every afternoon on her way home from school in El Paso could have a newly purchased handgun in her backpack that will be re-sold and used to kill someone. Now, anyone in drug war zones could be involved in crime, actively, peripherally, or just once."

Caption: The women's prison of Ciudad Juarez, known as El Cereso (Centro de Readaptacion Social)... The rise of women’s involvement in narcotics-related crime is directly linked to poverty and lack of employment opportunities. Also, as more and more women are becoming widows from the narco-violence, they are lured into criminal activity as one of the only financial options available to support their family. The expansion of the drug cartels into working directly with street gangs has also led to more female involvement. In a widely circulated video, Rogelio Amaya of the Juarez-based gang La Linea says there are between 20 and 30 young women that are part of the gang and trained to kill. He says that they use pretty teenagers in order to trick their opponents.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
Orlisnky had been working on a long-term project about "orphans, widows, and young people growing up in neighborhoods inundated by drug gang violence" when she became interested in the idea of women involved in drug crimes. "In November 2010 there was a particular night I met local journalists at the El Diario de Juarez newspaper offices, and we were waiting around, listening to the police scanner, about to go to the night’s crime scenes (Juarez’s murder rate was at around eight people a day at this point in time)," she recalled. "The guys were all huddled around a computer at one point and chatting loudly, so I went to check it out, and they were looking at photos of Eunice Ramirez, a beautiful, 18-year-old part-time model who had just been arrested for kidnapping. And I decided I had to go meet her, and I began to question my assumption of women’s role in the drug war as...solely those left behind on the margins."

Caption: Laura Érika Mar, in prison for homicide.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
"I wanted to document what was happening in Mexico as a humanitarian crisis, because it is one, but also to counter the narrative that the Mexican government was putting out that it was just bad guys killing bad guys, and a lot of the media coverage of the drug war was focusing on anonymous carnage, cartel leaders, instead of the real people living through it every day," Orlinsky said. "Women’s role in the war, from victims to being criminals themselves, is huge and often overlooked. I was focusing on widows at first, attending church groups and other support groups to meet people who had lost loved ones in the violence and explain to them the project. A lot more women were interested in working with me than I thought would be, and it was precisely because they wanted to share their story, to let people know that their husband or brother or son was a good person, that just because he was killed doesn’t make him 'bad.' In Mexico, every murder leaves behind a family, many struggling with loss and financial survival. Yet victimhood does not necessarily equate innocence, and I didn’t want to ignore that women were becoming more and more involved in drug war-related crime. I wanted to know who they were."

Caption: Inmates and their children in the yard of the Ciudad Juarez women's prison.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
"The narco-lifestyle appeals to many women across Mexico. The glamour and excitement of money, dangerous men, and fast cars, or the pure escapism of drinking and partying, is tempting," Orlinsky said. "The music, fashion, and way of life associated with drug trafficking has grown particularly popular in Northern Mexican cities where you can 'make it' by being a criminal. Or by dating one."

Caption: Claudia Ramirez Contreras, in prison for kidnapping, is the sister of the now famous Eunice Ramirez, a former model and party hostess in Ciudad Juarez. The Ramirez sisters are currently behind bars, accused of collaborating in a kidnapping gang, using their beauty to lure men into abductions.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
"At the time in Juarez, it was both difficult and dangerous to talk to active criminals (female gang members can be just as deadly as their male counterparts)," Orlinsky said. "Journalists operating in Mexico risk everything from phoned threats to murder and dismemberment if they upset the wrong people. So I think working inside a prison was a great option, and I was lucky enough to get access and pursue this work when I did. Now this particular prison has come under state control and is way too sketchy to do what I was doing."

Caption: An inmate and her daughter in the Ciudad Juarez Women's Prison. More women are participating in Mexico’s drug war than ever before, and more are getting arrested.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
"The majority of the female inmates are mothers, and their children often visit," Orlinsky said. "Some children who were born in the prison or lack suitable guardians even live inside the prison with their mothers."

Caption: Two boys play in the Ciudad Juarez women's prison.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
"Despite stories of violence within the prison, and a jail riot that killed 16 in July 2011, the whole place had the feel of a boarding school for over-age delinquents," Orlinsky said. "No one wants to be there, but there are quite a few cases where life inside is actually safer for women than living in the city itself."

Caption: Visiting day outside the Ciudad Juarez prison.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
"I think the Mexican prison system is a lot more humane and makes more sense than what I have seen in the U.S.A.," she added. "There is a small economy within the prison: Women work as hairdressers for each other; the inmates work doing the maintenance or running the shops or telephone; there’s a factory, classes. They let the male and female sides of the prison socialize. A lot of women live with their young children, because there’s nowhere else for them to go or that’s safe, which definitely brings about a unique environment. It’s still prison, though. Eunice and Claudia (who were convicted of kidnapping in a high profile case because Eunice was a part-time model, and sexy photos of her ran in a lot of local media) had to be separated for their safety."

Caption: Nancy Nunez and daughter Claudia Marlen. Nunez is in prison for drug trafficking.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
Orlinsky shared the stories of several of the inmates she met, including Julia Fragozo, pictured: "Three years ago, Julia Fragozo was arrested for transporting drugs. She says her husband borrowed a car to take her on a 'fun' weekend away from their hometown, Parachua, just outside Chihuahua city, 'I thought we were going to have a great time,' she said. Then they passed a checkpoint. Soldiers searched their car and found a large quantity of marijuana. The couple was arrested immediately. Fragozo was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She claims she had no idea drugs were stashed in the vehicle. Lydia Cordero of Casa Amiga says cases like Fragozo’s are becoming increasingly common. 'Women get involved [in crime] nowadays because of their husband, boyfriend or someone very close to them,' she says. Before prison, Fragozo worked a variety of odd jobs, including a stint briefly in a maquila. Mostly, though, she stayed at home and cared for her disabled uncle and two infant children. She describes being apart from them as 'a slow agony… I need them — to see them, to hug them, to tell them that I love them — but they are so far away.'"
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
Karla Soloria (pictured), in prison for drug and weapons trafficking, is another inmate Orlinsky told Refinery29 about: "Karla Soloria was drawn to the fast life. Before her arrest, the Ciudad Juarez native worked in residential real estate, a middle-class job. The Juarez property market plummeted as the violence in Mexico grew, and Soloria had a hard time making a living. She struggled to support her son and elderly mother as a single mom. Soloria spent years lonely, overworked, and exhausted. So when her son was old enough to enter Kindergarten, and she felt comfortable leaving him at home with his grandmother, she hit the party scene, 'I just wanted to have fun, to make up for lost time,' she recalled with a slight sense of shame. 'I wanted my freedom.' There were times in Juarez when just driving across town to the bars risked death, but danger didn’t stop Soloria. Going out with 'those men' made her 'feel good and important,' she said. Soloria’s fun was cut short one night at a party when soldiers stormed the house and found a stash of drugs, illegal guns, and ammunition hidden in a back room. They arrested everyone there, and Soloria was sentenced to seven years for drugs and arms trafficking. She claims she was innocent, guilty only of getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. 'I regret not seeing the danger in what I was doing, and trusting people that I thought I knew,' she said."
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
Many believe violence against women — including femicide — plays a factor in driving women into the drug trade. One book cited by Orlinsky estimates that more than 1,000 women in Juarez were murdered or went missing over an 18-year period. "In Juarez, violence is part of the daily fabric of life, and it is nothing new," Orlinsky said.

Caption: Manuela Angelica Munoz, in prison for drug trafficking.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
"Almost all of [the inmates] had children and their most immediate hope was to get back to them, to see them and take care of them (for the ones whose children didn’t live inside prison with them)," Orlinsky said. "The younger women dreamed of studying or finding a job to support their elderly parents."

Caption: Inmates and their children hit a piñata in the yard of the Ciudad Juarez women's prison.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
Orlinsky believes that reversing the recent trends involving women in crime requires "drastic changes to the structure of the entire country," including economic growth that trickles down to people of all income levels, an overhaul of the education system, and better social services. "A financially independent, well-educated woman is far less likely to become a criminal," she said. Improvements to the justice system are also essential. "There is rampant impunity," she said. "Crimes are never solved; people go missing and are never found; mass graves are discovered years later. It’s a deep, dark sickness that infects everyone and everything. There are no authorities to trust, no closure, no hope — and no one should have to live a life in fear."

Caption: Yazmín Mendoza, in prison for drug trafficking.
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Photo: Katie Orlinsky
While many solutions lie in Mexico, Orlinsky believes it is important for Americans to acknwoledge the role they play in the problem. "The United States is just as much to blame for the situation in Mexico as Mexico itself," she said. "We are the number one customer and consumer of drugs smuggled and produced in Mexico. We manufacture and supply the illegal weapons fueling the drug cartel violence and need to handle crime and corruption on our own end. Instead of giving billions of dollars to the Mexican armed forces, we can focus our resources on the future and support social programs that will keep young women out of jail."

Caption: Claudia Ramirez Contreras and Eunice Ramírez sit on the twin bed they share in their prison cell in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The case of Eunice in particular has become famous throughout Mexico, used as an example of women's growing involvement in crime throughout the country.

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