Small Wars Journal

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Narcas: The Secret Rise of Women in Latin America’s Cartels

Tue, 02/06/2024 - 4:03pm

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Narcas: The Secret Rise of Women in Latin America’s Cartels

Nathan P. Jones


Deborah Bonello, Narcas: The Secret Rise of Women in Latin America’s Cartels. Boston: Beacon Press, 2023 [ISBN-13:‎ 978-0807007044, Hardback; 166 pages]

Deborah Bonello’s Narcas: the Secret Rise of Women in Latin America’s Cartels brings to light the role of women in the drug trafficking industry; an often-overlooked phenomenon. Deborah Bonello masterfully provides a window into the lives of the women who have become major drug traffickers and, more often, minor players (p. 90). Through interviews, archival research, and the meticulous review of court documents, Bonello provides important empirical case studies with journalistic flair, bringing nuance to an understudied issue. 


Bonello makes important points that are valuable broadly to the study of drug trafficking. One point she highlights in the context of one of the women she profiles, is the need to protect informants. In one case one of the women she profiled had both of her sons murdered while she was meeting with Colombian authorities and US DEA. The subject attributed those meetings in which she continued to be incarcerated in Colombia as leading to the murder of her sons (p. 128). Thus, she ultimately did not cooperate so that other family members would not be killed. The lesson that she learned was that any cooperation could result in the death of her family as her lawyer argued on her behalf (p. 131). This is an important issue related to informants impacting both men and women in the organized crime world.

Las Buchonas

The concept of buchonas has in recent years drawn increased attention in the study of Mexican drug trafficking (pp. 107–115). Buchonas are the attractive girlfriends and wives of drug traffickers (or traffickers themselves). This lifestyle which focuses on a very specific aesthetic has drawn significant attention and impacted the lives of women participating in and in the orbit of drug trafficking in Mexico and beyond. Here Bonello elucidates how women can become both victims and victimizers/active participants with their own agency in the world of Mexican drug trafficking.  Bonello brings to this discussion a self-reflective view of the women who participated in these extensive surgeries in pursuit of an aesthetic which increasingly supports a broader narcocultura promoted and diffused by narcas like Emma Coronel, the wife of extradited Chapo Guzmán, former head of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Women and MS-13

Nowhere is the issue of women as victims versus participants more acute than in the case of women and their role in MS-13. Bonello describes the girlfriends of MS-13 members visiting their boyfriends in Central American prisons; the power and agency their relationships entail, but also the victimization those relationships imply from the police, MS-13, and society more broadly. It would be interesting to see these discussions updated as the security crackdown of President Bukele, who was reelected (Feb 2024) plays out. All analysts of the region are carefully watching the security gains accompanied by likely human rights violations. Bonello further discusses the role of women as MS-13 members themselves and the various policy changes the MS-13 leadership in Central America has implemented related to the membership of women.

A Powerful Read

Narcas is an excellent look into the role of women in Latin American drug trafficking which includes case studies spanning Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and the United States. It would be excellent for any course in criminology looking at Latin America, a political science course on drug trafficking or security issues, or various sociology courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels. It is a fast and enjoyable read built upon the research of an intrepid reporter for Vice News; an outlet which has been impressive on Latin American security reporting. Bonello is particularly good at getting access to high level female traffickers and then drawing the general from the specific. 

There are few places where I can suggest any improvement to this book. I hoped to read on the role of women like Rosalinda González Valencia, the wife of El Mencho the leader of the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG). She came from the Valencia family, which was important in the Milenio cartel, a precursor to the CJNG. She has been identified by numerous publications such as El País as critical to the money laundering operations of the CJNG and is an example of a woman in drug trafficking meriting further study. This is not a critique of the book, rather an acknowledgement that we can always cover more and that the inherently difficult to study drug world will always leave us waiting for the revelations of case studies such as this.


Deborah Bonello’s fine work on the role of women in Latin American drug trafficking gives us a richer more nuanced view of the role they play. This view demonstrates women may have far more agency and capacity to use nonviolent mechanisms to move to the top of the drug trafficking world than we realize. One of her key points is that women are more able to remain invisible in the face of state action and rival cartels. This is a critical point for anyone studying the sociology of drug trafficking and women’s ability to survive and thrive in an increasingly globalized world where borders are easily penetrated by illicit flows.

Categories: El Centro - Mexico - drug cartels

About the Author(s)

Dr. Nathan P. Jones is an Associate Professor of Security Studies at Sam Houston State University and a Non-resident Scholar for Rice University’s Baker Institute in Drug Policy and Mexico Studies; he previously was an Alfred C. Glassell III Postdoctoral Fellow in Drug Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He holds a PhD from the University of California, Irvine and won an Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation Fellowship to conduct fieldwork in Mexico on organized crime. Jones published Mexico's Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction (Georgetown University Press, 2016), and has published with numerous think tanks and peer reviewed journals. He is a Small Wars Journal–El Centro Senior Fellow and serves as the book review editor for the Journal of Strategic Security.