The cocaine queen causing a stir in Mexico

They call her the Queen of the Pacific and her every court appearance boosts TV ratings. We profile Sandra Avila Beltran, the alleged mastermind behind one of Latin America's most powerful cocaine cartels.

They call her the Queen of the Pacific and the Mexican media can't get enough of her. Yet this is no ordinary celebrity, says The Guardian. Sandra Avila Beltran is alleged to be the mastermind behind one of Latin America's most powerful cocaine cartels. Arrested a month ago, she faces charges of organised crime, money laundering and drugs trafficking and may eventually be extradited to the US. But her poise under pressure has the nation enthralled. "Oh please don't read those charges again," she reportedly told a court official, tossing back her long hair. "I already know them by heart."

The region's drugs wars have seen more than 1,500 deaths in gangland shootings this year, but Avila Beltran "is no run-of-the-mill narco-thug", says Newsweek. In skin tight jeans and sweaters, the 46-year-old brunette is undeniably glamorous (local fashionistas admire her chutzpah in demanding extra soap and make-up from her guards). She's also the girlfriend of one of Colombia's most feared drug lords, Juan Diego Espinoza Ramirez, alias "El Tigre". Arrested with him outside a restaurant in one of Mexico City's glitziest areas, she swears she made her money from selling clothes and renting houses. Prosecutors pooh-pooh the claim, saying she was the crucial "queenpin", linking producers in Colombia with middle agents in her home state of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico, making her responsible for a flood of cocaine hitting US streets.

Beltran is certainly no outsider: she boasts one the finest pedigrees in Latino organised crime. Her paternal uncle and great uncle, both now in US custody, were godfathers of the Mexican drug trade. Her mother's family, the Beltrans, were notorious heroin smugglers in the 1970s, later diversifying into cocaine. Her early life reflected this legacy. The El Universal newspaper says she married twice: both times to police-commanders-turned-traffickers, and was twice widowed (both husbands were executed by rivals). Prosecutors say she later acted as "head of public relations" for another baron, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia; he was indicted in 2003 by a federal grand jury in Washington on charges of conspiring to import cocaine with an estimated value of $47.4m. She never shrank from employing the violence that comes with the turf, former US Drug Enforcement chief Michael Vigil told Newsweek. "Sandra was ruthless. She used the typical intimidation tactics of Mexican organisations." Sometimes, she suffered in return. In 2002, her teenaged son was kidnapped and ransomed for $5m. Avila Beltran took charge of negotiations for his release, eventually procuring it for a knock-down $3m.

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In fact, it is astonishing that it took the authorities so long to catch up with her, particularly since Avila Beltran was a national legend long before her arrest: her nickname, Pacific Queen coined by a popular Mexican folk group dates back to 2001, when she was implicated in a multi-ton consignment of cocaine seized in a tuna fishing boat off the Mexican Pacific coast. Moreover, she allegedly continued laundering money, via real-estate purchases and a tanning salon, long after investigations into her operations got underway. Now resident in a maximum security prison, her every court appearance boosts the TV ratings. "Have a lovely afternoon," she cooed to the clerk of the court at the end of a recent hearing. One thing is clear, says The Guardian. "Even if Sandra Avila Beltran disappears from view for a while, she isn't going to vanish from the imaginations of her countrymen."

The booming cocaine industry

Some drug-crime experts claim the furore surrounding Avila Beltran is hyped, insisting her real importance has been exaggerated. But it would be wrong to view her as an isolated case, says Newsweek. "Growing numbers of women are getting involved in the male-dominated illicit narcotics industry" and "increasingly heading up operations". Even so, the Mexican government's crackdown on the cocaine trade is affecting the drug's availability in the US, says the Los Angeles Times. Prices in some cities have nearly doubled because of tight supplies: the average price for a gram of coke is now $118.70, "the highest level in five years"; purity has fallen from about 80% to 60%. A study by US drug-testing firm, Quest Diagnostics, showed a 16% fall in those who tested positive for cocaine in workplaces during the first six months of 2007.

So is the war on drugs being won? It depends on where you live, says Mexican news agency Notimex. There is certainly evidence in the US that cocaine use is giving way to locally-manufactured synthetic drugs, "which are far more practical to acquire, transport and consume". But although Latin American drug cartels have had their operations disrupted, the trade is still alive and kicking and looking to new markets in Europe, which are seen as "much more profitable". A recent seizure in Colombia tells its own story, says the Daily Mail. Some 1,800 wrapped parcels of cocaine, valued at £25m, were labelled with the Union Flag. And "plummeting street prices" suggest the traffickers are getting through. A line of coke in Britain costs just £2.50 in some areas "less than a glass of wine".