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Part III La Reina Del Sur: Costa Rica’s Drug Diva Sorority
It is well known how dangerous La Reina del Sur de Costa Rica is – but it’s also dangerous to be this 25 year old. This fact was brought painfully into focus on December 28, 2018, when a 20- year old Nicaraguan waitress named Tatty Matamoros was found dead, thrown out of a moving car. Her only crime was that she bore a slight resemblance to Costa Rica’s Reina del Sur, and had similar blue roses tattooed on her inner arms. Someone wanted Gomez Espinoza dead.
Tatiana Matamoros, known fondly as Tatty to her family and friends, came to Costa Rica in 2017 to find a better job and better quality of life for herself. Nicaraguan life was full of gang violence and danger for a pretty young girl like Tatty. She quickly found work as a waitress in San Jose. New friends were attracted to her kind eyes and sweet smile, and she managed to adjust easily to her new life in the big city. Tatty’s critical mistake was to get blue roses tattooed on her arms – tattoos reminiscent of those of the notorious Cristel Gomez Espinoza.
Tatiana was found on the edge of the road Vuelta de Jorco de Aserri, San Jose — dead. The coroner concluded that the cause of death was probably a violent blow to the side of her head, administered before someone tossed her body out of a moving car in the middle of the night. Her family scraped and borrowed enough money to send Tatty’s body back to Nicaragua for burial. The family lives in Jinotega, Nicaragua, a humble and poverty-stricken part of the country. Newspapers in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua reported that Tatiana was undoubtedly killed because she was mistaken for La Reina del Sur. She was killed just as she was coming into a new, promising life. Her family is still grieving.
Cristel belongs to an exclusive club of women who lead crime organizations. Lou Hinton, former Federal Bureau of Investigations Agent (FBI) and expert in narco-traffickers said of Cristel and her crime sisters, “All powerful, dangerous, and capable of leading organized crime syndicates or gangs, these women mean serious business.”
The original drug diva, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), was Enedina Arellano Felix (58 years old). Enedina had wanted only to become the queen of a carnival in Mazatlan, Mexico, but because of her family’s drug trafficking activities, her dream never came true. Instead, she became the leader of the Tijuana Cartel in 2008, after her brother Eduardo was arrested, leaving a vacancy in the cartel leadership. Enedina had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from a university in Guadalajara, invaluable education for her family’s money laundering activities.
Enedina was wildly successful in her new role, becoming known as “The Boss”, or “The Narco-Mother” –but sadly never the carnival queen. She managed, however, to outlive all of her brothers and numerous other male cartel bosses throughout Mexico. This seems to be an advantage of being a female in the narco business – slightly less likely to be killed. She is reportedly worth 1-5 million dollars, and is still alive.
Like Costa Rica and Mexico, Colombia also has infamous drug divas. The best known is Griselda Blanco (deceased), estimated to be responsible for at least 200 deaths during her criminal career, from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Griselda began very young. At barely eleven years old, Griselda kidnapped and tried to ransom a kid from a rich neighborhood of Medellin. The kidnapped child’s parents just laughed at the idea of a child demanding a ransom for kidnap. Griselda shot the child dead at her parents’ feet.
Griselda became known as “Cocaine Godmother” or “La Madrina”, and achieved huge success in the cocaine drug trade and criminal underworld. Her U.S. distribution network alone brought in roughly $80,000,000 a month. Eventually, she was captured and spent twenty years in American jail, where she continued her cocaine business without pause. While in prison, Griselda invented ladies underpants with special compartments for cocaine smuggling. After her release from prison, Griselda returned to Colombia and was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2012; she was worth $2 billion at the time of her death. A television movie was made of her life, “Cocaine Godmother”, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Guatemala has its own Reina del Sur, by the name of Marllory Dadiana Chacon Rossell, famous for both narco-trafficking and money laundering. Marllory is now 48 years old, with seven children. She was an amazingly creative drug boss, relying on that strength rather than violence to succeed. She established her own lottery, Bingoton Millionario, which made gobs of money, while simultaneously laundering it for investors and her own family. Meanwhile, she turned herself into Guatemalan high society, attending all the best parties and rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.
In 2012, Marllory and her husband were designated by the U.S. Treasury Department “one of the most prolific money launderers and narco-traffickers in Central America.” They were charged with those offenses, but thanks to good legal help, managed to accept a lesser charge of guilt for smuggling a mere five kilos of cocaine. They also rolled on many of their fellow traffickers. In return for this information, the judge agreed to keep their prison location and release date a secret for five years. That agreement is up in 2020. Their enemies in the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas are reputed to have very long memories.
The world has seen narco-trafficking (narcotrafico) go from a small family business, with a simple organization and division of labor, to a transnational network of production, transportation and commercialization of illegal drugs. With this evolution comes its own narcoculture of lifestyle, music, fashion, slang, habits and customs.
Cristel Gomez Espinoza has been at the vanguard of this evolution in Costa Rica. Criminal analyst Alvaro Ramos commented, “Prior to Cristel, we had only women leading small groups distributing drugs locally, and sometimes internationally. Since Cristel, we have seen women managing large, powerful cartels, following in the footsteps of other female cartel leaders.” Cristel managed to keep her activities, and those of her cartel undercover for a long time, by living modestly and discreetly, and trusting only a small group of family and neighbors. Tragically, she now faces numerous years in prison where she will have to raise her new baby, and try to protect herself from rival incarcerated drug divas.
La Reina Del Sur: Inspiration for Costa Rica’s Drug Diva
Mexican beauty Sandra Avila Beltran was having coffee with friends at an upscale coffee shop in Mexico City in 2001, when the police cornered her and took her into custody. A tuna boat had been seized by the authorities carrying over nine tons of cocaine. The boat was traced by cell phones found on board, back to Sandra and her lover “el Tigre”. At last the “Queen of the Pacific”, also known as Mexico’s “Queen of the South”, had been captured. Similarities between the now 60-year old Mexican and Costa Rica’s 25-year old Queen of the South are legendary.
When captured, Sandra declared to authorities that she was “merely a housewife who earns a little money on the side selling clothes and renting houses.” That “little housewife” required four years and 30 federal agents to investigate, and eventually capture. She was operating on a much higher level of narco-traffickers than the Mexican authorities were accustomed to – especially for a woman. Her arrest would probably never have happened had she not unexpectedly contacted Mexican authorities herself when her son was kidnapped and ransomed for US 5 million. Her son was released, and Sandra and her Colombian tuna boat lover “El Tigre” were taken into custody. Sandra herself negotiated the release of her son from the kidnappers for US 3 million prior to her arrest. She also ratted out El Tigre to get a shorter sentence for herself.
Sandra suffered seven years in Mexican prison, two of them in solitary confinement. In 2009, she was interviewed for the American TV show 60 Minutes, by journalist Anderson Cooper. She complained to Cooper that her cell room was full of insects, and that the prison was violating her human rights by not allowing her deliveries of restaurant food. She was, however, allowed to receive Botox injections while incarcerated, which cost the prison doctor and hospital chief their jobs when it was discovered.
Jose Gerardo Mejia, the only journalist to interview Sandra while she was in prison, painted a different picture of the life of a jailed drug diva. He described her as, “a prisoner in four-inch heels, adorned with jewels, custom clothing, and obsequious guards who acted with the airs of a low-ranking diplomat announcing the arrival of the ambassador. Sandra’s guests were treated to food service served by maids, and included alcohol and cigarettes.”
Sandra was born in Baja California, Mexico, into a family of narco-traffickers known as the Guadalajara Cartel. She is a third generation drug diva. On her paternal side, her father is serving a 40-year sentence for the murder of a US DEA (Drug Enforcement Agent). On her mother’s side, several convictions of her mother and other relatives are on record for heroin smuggling, then later cocaine smuggling. Sandra was precocious. She spent so many hours helping her family count drug money that they would show off her favorite cocktail party trick to friends. Sandra could grab a fistful of dollars, and precisely calibrate their cash value. She later also became a ferocious car driver, master horseback rider, and deadly sharpshooter.
As a young woman, Sandra, like Cristel (Costa Rica Reina del Sur), had several affairs with well-known drug barons. She was married twice to Mexican ex-police officers, whom she allegedly converted into drug traffickers. Both husbands were brutally assassinated by hired thugs. Her most powerful partner was Juan Diego Espinoza Ramirez, “El Tigre”, her partner in crime with the tuna boat carrying nine tons of cocaine. She conducted an on and off again affair with “el Mayo” Zambada, a Mexican drug smuggler. She also had a close friendship with the notorious “El Chapo” Guzman.
Sandra was celebrated in Mexico and throughout Latin America by a band known as Los Tucanes de Tijuana (The Toucans of Tijuana) with a party single and video of their song, “Party in the Mountains”. It featured a secret birthday party in a place so remote that it was accessible only by helicopter. Many well-known narco-traffickers were in attendance, each with a security entourage, including the infamous “El Chapo” Guzman. In the video, Sandra is shown making a fashionably late, and dramatic entrance. Her entrance is described in the song like this:
“All the guests arrived at the mountain party in private helicopters. Suddenly, they heard a buzzing sound, and saw a chopper landing. The boss ordered everyone to hold their fire. Out came a beautiful lady, dressed in camo and carrying a “cuerno” (AK-47). Everyone knew immediately who she was!”
“Party in the Mountains” rocketed Los Tucanes to fame and fortune. They became part of the originators of “narcocorridos”, popular Mexican songs celebrating drug trafficking and drug violence, set to a bouncy accordion and brass-accented melody. Mexico has banned narcocorridos on the radio – they get people too fired up. These songs are still heard at bars, restaurants and private homes. Sandra could not have paid for better marketing for herself as a narco queen.
DEA officials said of Sandra, “Sandra was very ruthless. She never shrank from employing the violence that comes with the turf. She used the typical intimidation tactics of Mexican cartel organizations.” These tactics crowned her queen of one of the most coveted drug smuggling routes in the business: the Colombian-US Pacific corridor. Her tactics also set a perfect example for Cristel, and other drug queenpins.
Sandra and Cristel lived similarly compartmentalized lives. Both had loving families, luxurious living arrangements that only millionaires can afford, the best imported fashion and make-up – and yet spent much of their time in the trenches managing the most vicious and cruel drug lords known to Latin America. Both commented about their success that they studiously avoided using drugs themselves. Use of drugs by a drug diva erased the respect of her associates, and made her vulnerable to foolish situations with dangerous people. Both women approached their life’s work with cunning and ingenuity.
Sandra Avila Beltran has managed to cement her legacy in the world through a book based loosely on her life’s story, titled “La Reina del Sur”, written by Arturo Perez Reverte. The book was turned into a TV series starring the incomparable actress Kate del Castillo. Although Sandra was known more frequently as the Queen of the Pacific for her armada of tuna boats transporting drugs through Mexico to the USA, the title Reina del Sur became her trademark. Perez Reverte has complained that the TV series bore little resemblance to his book, but it launched Sandra into the role of a narco-tafficker heroine.
The National Enquirer of Costa Rica, La Teja, published a comparison between the two Reinas del Sur, concluding that although very different physically (Sandra is tall and dark-skinned, Cristel is petite and light skinned), and obviously different in age, the two shared a common drive to succeed, and ability to make millions of dollars by narco-trafficking, while managing men twice their age and physical strength.
The two queens are credited with opening doors for several other drug divas, in several different Latin American countries. They are also credited with bringing the attention of international drug enforcement agencies to the fact that women are having an increasingly powerful role in narco-trafficking throughout the world.
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