Mexico’s Drug War, Feminized

By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: August 13, 2011
Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

WITH a sweet, awkward smile, Nancy Lilia Núñez offered up the main details of her life: she is a mother of three, having given birth to a daughter just seven months ago, and she is serving a 25-year sentence for helping to kidnap a 15-year-old girl. We were sitting at El Cereso — the Ciudad Juárez prison — a drab, hulking complex of brick and steel. Ms. Núñez wore tight jeans and eye makeup, as if heading to the mall.

At one moment, she declared with simply stated conviction that she had no idea the 15-year-old girl was being held for ransom in the house where Ms. Núñez was arrested. The next, she seemed to be holding back information about the friends she was arrested with. Ms. Núñez is only 22. She grew up here, in one of the world’s most crime-infested cities. But was she just hanging out with the wrong crowd, or is she a criminal deserving decades behind bars?

With her case and others, this is what Mexico is struggling to figure out. The number of women incarcerated for federal crimes has grown by 400 percent since 2007, pushing the total female prison population past 10,000.

No one here seems to know what to make of the spike. Clearly, the rise can partly be attributed to the long reach of drug cartels, which have expanded into organized crime, and drawn in nearly everyone they can, including women.

Detained lieutenants for cartels have told the police that some act as lookouts. Other women work as drug mules, killers, or as “la gancha