The media have dubbed her the “Queen of the Pacific,” a rare woman who allegedly reached the top of the male-dominated Colombian-Mexican drug world with her feminine mystique.
She was featured in the famous drug ballad titled “The Queen of the Queens,” sung by a band called Los Tucanes de Tijuana. One line in the narcocorrido captured her essence: “The more beautiful the rose, the sharper the thorns.”
Her name: Sandra Avila Beltrán. The raven-haired 51-year-old — at least that’s what her arrest form says her age is — will appear in Miami federal court Tuesday for her arraignment and bond hearing. She was extradited last week from Mexico, where she had been arrested in 2007, on charges of conspiring to smuggle loads of cocaine into the United States more than a decade ago.
“She is very Cleopatra-ish, like the Queen of the Nile,” said Miami criminal defense attorney Lilly Ann Sanchez, who represented two other defendants in the same case. “She was able to maneuver her way in a man’s world and use the fact that she was a woman to her advantage in more ways than one.”
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Her reputation as the Queen of the Pacific was gained by her dominant role in the powerful Sinaloa cartel, her romantic relationship with a Colombian drug kingpin and her influence over ocean supply routes.
In June, after years of legal fighting, a Mexican court granted her extradition to face the U.S. narco-trafficking charges, which have alleged links to a cocaine deal in Chicago. In 2001, federal agents intercepted a telephone call in which Avila allegedly sought payment for 220 pounds of cocaine delivered in Chicago.
But her criminal defense attorney maintains Avila is innocent.
“Throughout the entirety of the prosecution’s investigation, Sandra has maintained she was not involved in any of the allegations against her in the indictment,” said her attorney, Stephen Ralls, of Tucson, who has represented many major accused traffickers.
Both Mexican and U.S. authorities say Avila was born into the business. She is the niece of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a trafficker from Guadalajara who was once considered the godfather of the Mexican drug trade. He is serving a 40-year sentence for smuggling and the 1984 murder of a U.S. drug enforcement agent, Enrique Camarena.
Avila was married twice to ex-police commanders who had swapped sides to join the drug syndicates, according to published reports. They were both murdered by hired assassins.
Avila’s other “romantic conquests” in Mexico’s Sinaloa organization and Colombia’s North Valley cartel dramatically raised her profile. Indeed, her longtime relationship with drug lord Juan Diego Espinosa, aka The Tiger, paved the way for the dynamic duo to cut deals between Mexican and Colombian traffickers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, authorities say.
Avila’s one-time lover is the brother of the lead defendant in the indictment accusing her and six others of cocaine-conspiracy charges in Miami. His name: Leyner Valencia Espinosa. He was initially sentenced to 22 years in prison, later cut by half for his cooperation with authorities.
With her wealth, Avila ran a string of tanning salons and a real estate company with investments throughout Sonora state.
She eluded authorities for years, until they linked her to a nine-ton shipment of cocaine seized in the Pacific port of Manzanillo in 2001.
Soon after, her teenage son was kidnapped in Guadalajara. Although she contacted authorities, she negotiated his release by paying a $5 million ransom.
By 2004, she was facing indictment in Miami along with several other members of the Espinosa family, court records show.
Three years later, authorities would finally arrest her at a Mexico City restaurant while she was having coffee. She reportedly asked them to let her freshen her makeup. A videotape showed her smiling and strutting in tight jeans and spiked heels. Her boyfriend, Espinosa, also was arrested in 2007.
While in custody, Avila told investigators that she was a housewife who made money selling clothes and houses.
In 2009, while battling extradition to the United States, Avila gave an interview to journalist Anderson Cooper for the news show, 60 Minutes, in which she blamed the Mexican government for allowing the drug trade to flourish.
“It’s obvious and logical,” she said. “The government has to be involved in everything that is corrupt.”
The following year, both she and Espinosa were acquitted of drug-trafficking charges stemming from the Manzanillo seizure, after a Mexican judge found a lack of evidence.
Mexicans, along with the media, have long been fascinated with Avila, following details of her taste for high fashion, gourmet food and beauty secrets. One rumor that made the rounds: A doctor visited her while she was jailed in Mexico to administer her Botox injections.
Much of the fascination with Avila is because of her sex. For decades, narco-trafficking has been dominated by macho men, but experts say women have always played a key role in Mexican drug organizations.
Last year, the Mexican media reported that Enedina Arellano Felix had become the country’s first female cartel leader by taking charge of the Tijuana syndicate. That phenomenon has also influenced popular culture. In the latest Oliver Stone movie, Savages, glamorous Mexican actress Salma Hayek played a ruthless female drug lord.
Avila could easily have been her inspiration. A journalist, Ricardo Ravelo, once described Avila this way to the newspaper Cronica de Mexico: “She is a protagonist, violent, manipulative, dictatorial, a braggart, with an active social life, a lover of parties, jewelry and all of [life’s] pleasures.”
Those days are long gone. The reputed “queenpin,” now held in a detention cell in downtown Miami, faces the prospect of many years in U.S. prison.
Information from The Observer was used to supplement this story.