Rising arrests of women for involvement in organized crime in Cali highlights how women are increasingly part of, as well as victims of, organized crime, not only in Colombia but across Latin America.
Between January 1 and August 21, 2013, police arrested 1,058 women, with 364 of them on drug trafficking charges. This represented a 15 percent rise in total arrests of women and a 36 percent increase in drug trafficking arrests on the 2012 figures for that period. During those months, 21 women were also arrested for homicide, more than double the 2012 number, according to Cali police figures (pdf).
In the first two months of 2014, a further 98 women were arrested, the majority for drug trafficking, arms trafficking and personal injury, reported El Pais.
According to one woman who works with at-risk youth in Cali, and asked to remain anonymous, gangs and other criminal groups have been increasingly bringing women into their ranks recently, often using force and threats.
Women are also frequently victims of sexual violence and homicides perpetrated by criminal groups in Cali, with 2013 seeing the highest number of women killed since 2007, with 113 murders, reported El Pais.
It is common for the effects of organized crime violence to be felt deeply among the female population across Latin America. This is particularly true in the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America, which has become one of the deadliest places in the world for women as the region has grown in importance to the transnational drug trade. Sexual violence is also a major concern — in Medellin, Colombia, criminal gangs are known to sell young virgins into the sex trade.
Meanwhile, there is a growing phenomenon of women working for criminal groups. While in some cases they are coerced into working in high-risk, low-benefit positions — often as drug mules — they have also begun taking more prominent roles. For example, in Mexico’s Gulf Cartel, women have been reported to manage high-level drug operations. In Cali, one woman arrested in December 2013 was allegedly responsible for gathering intelligence on victims for a hired assassin group.
The growing criminal involvement of Cali women occurs in the context of a chaotic power struggle between remnants of the Rastrojos and Urabeños-backed gangs, which has resulted in extreme levels of violence. Sources consulted by InSight Crime said the Urabeños now have at least five so-called “oficinas de cobro” in the city, organized crime structures, but that no one group has yet managed to consolidate power here.
A criminal pact was brokered in December 2013 — following one made in Medellin in July last year — but it is not clear this has yet had any significant effect on levels of violence.