Cartel ‘Queen’: My Crimes Are No Worse Than Marrying a Politician

Jose Luis Montenegro
Jose Luis Montenegro

GUADALAJARA, Mexico—Sandra Ávila Beltrán—once alleged to be Mexico’s most famous female drug trafficker—enters the room like a movie star; turning heads, dressed in Chanel, and well over three-hours late.

Now in her early sixties, she still exudes the magnetism and raw sex appeal that saw her rise through the ranks as an immaculately connected power player in the wild world of the major drug cartels.

She became a household name—known as the “Queen of the Pacific”—in Mexico after her coolness under police interview was captured on camera in 2007. In that viral video, she was totally unruffled by claims that she had been part of an operation to smuggle nine tons of cocaine, insisting that she was just a housewife with a side-hustle selling clothes and renting out properties.

Ávila was charged along with her lover, the Colombian drug lord Juan Diego Espinosa, universally known as “El Tigre.” The authorities claimed she was one of the key cross-border links between the Sinaloa cartel and Norte del Valle Cartel in Colombia.

The lifestyle and criminal career of this narco legend became the basis for the show The Queen of the South, although Netflix has refused to pay her a cent despite Ávila filing a lawsuit to demand a share of the revenues.

Her connections to the Mexican cartels run deep. Ávila’s uncle, Felix Gallardo, controlled the illegal trade of narcotics from Mexico to the United States for many years; it was said that there was no cargo route or drug trafficker that was not under his command in the 1980s. He was also the architect of the alliance with drug cartels in Colombia, specifically with Pablo Escobar Gaviria and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha.

Queenpins of the Drug Cartels

Gallardo, who was eventually convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering and the murder of a DEA agent, was known as “El Jefe de Jefes” (The Boss of Bosses), or “El Padrino” (The Godfather.) For years, he continued to run his drug smuggling operation from behind bars.

Ávila was twice married to men who joined the Sinaloa Cartel after careers as commanders in the Federal Judicial Police—which has since been shut down for its rampant corruption and links to the cartels. They had provided her with all kinds of luxuries, including vehicles and homes. “If my husband wants to give me a car or a house, I don’t ask where the money comes from,” she told The Daily Beast, running her hand through her hair and smiling.

Ávila—who famously showed up to one narco-party carrying an AK47—was never convicted of direct participation in drug running, but she spent time in U.S. and Mexican prisons for being an accessory to criminal activity and money laundering.

She believes she should never have been incarcerated simply for handling the proceeds of crime. As far as she is concerned her relationships with senior cartel members were no different to being married to a politician.

“I was accused of money laundering. But let's see, if I have a husband and he buys me a house or buys me a car, is that why I’m laundering capital? Tell me if the wife of a politician tells her husband: ‘No, I don’t want the house.’ For example: Angelica Rivera, the former first lady of Mexico, [an actress who was married to former President Enrique Peña Nieto] do you think that her money came from a salary from Televisa network? Who believes that?

“If I have a husband and he buys me a house, I'm not going to ask him where he got [the money] from, nor do I care. And if someone comes right now and gives me a house or a car, I’m not going to ask them how where they got it from. I don't care.”

Ávila was expounding on her theory during the second of two meetings in Guadalajara. I responded by asking if that wasn’t the precise definition of money laundering? “Imagine, how many women would they take [to jail] if they talk about money laundering? Martha Sahagun [wife of former President Vicente Fox Quesada], Angelica Rivera?”

So, what does she think of these former first ladies of Mexico? “What good luck! I congratulate you. Everyone has a destiny and if theirs was to have all that and that fortune came to them, it came to them. I couldn’t finish a subdivision that I was building in Sonora.”

After her marriages to two corrupted cops, Ávila’s relationship with “El Tigre” linked her to one of the most notorious cartel drug runners who Mexican authorities claim made a fortune trafficking more than 500 tons of cocaine from Mexico to the United States between 1990 and 2004.

The link between politicians and drug lords is far closer in Mexico than most countries—sometimes literally with claims that they are operating on behalf of one cartel or another. Even for clean politicians, the threat of violence is ever-present. Hundreds have been killed since the so-called war on drugs began in 2006.

The latest trend is the sons of big drug bosses getting into politics, which Ávila welcomes. “Can you imagine that they wanted to do something different for their country? That is, they didn't do what their father did or they wanted to show that their father wasn't as bad as they thought,” she said. “I would do it. I would like to. There are very good people with a big heart and who help the people who need it most.”

Before sitting down for a full interview, Ávila came for a pre-meeting at a restaurant in Guadalajara, where she was greeted like a star by four waiters as soon as she entered the building. She was three and a half hours late for lunch but ordered only an artichoke heart and mineral water. Our table in the back monopolized our fellow diners’ whispers and their glances but the lack of privacy never seemed to hold Ávila back.

The meeting ended with her asking a favor. “Can you take a couple of photos for me? I want my legs to look long.” I took her cellphone and did as I was asked.

A van was waiting for her at the entrance of the restaurant as she left. I watched her leave and decided to walk through town. To my surprise, a couple of burly guys followed me for a couple of hours before getting lost among the luxury stores. I assumed they wanted to make sure I didn't follow Ávila, or perhaps they were analyzing my movements.

Word soon came through that we could meet again to discuss her extraordinary history.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>ICE deports Sandra Ávila Beltrán in 2013.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">ICE</div>

ICE deports Sandra Ávila Beltrán in 2013.


How Sandra Ávila Beltrán Got Caught

At the turn of the century, “the Queen of the Pacific” was at the height of her powers. She was in her early forties, considered royalty in cartel land and had inherited enviable economic stability from her father and two dead husbands who had provided her with all the luxuries she could desire.

On April 18, 2002, however, fortune stopped smiling on her.

An armed commando, dressed all in black, arrived at a gym in the Puerta de Hierro area in the city of Guadalajara, and kidnapped her only son, Jose Luis Fuentes Avila, who was 15. “It was the greatest pain I have ever been through in my life,” she told The Daily Beast. “The person who kidnapped him was a family friend, a friend of mine, including my son’s father. Almost always the kidnappings come from the escort, the cousin, there have even been children who have kidnapped their parents. They are the people closest to you.”

Rather than turn to the criminal underworld for assistance, Ávila panicked and went to the authorities. She explained to the Jalisco Attorney General's Office that the kidnappers were demanding $5 million for the boy’s release.

This sparked an investigation, which soon uncovered that this glamorous woman did not have a successful business track record, and yet she seemed to handle large sums of cash. The state anti-kidnapping unit began to monitor Ávila’s phone calls, and that’s when they discovered exactly what kind of friends she had.

As well as communication with the criminals who held her son captive, the authorities listened in as the calls rolled in from the likes of “El Tigre,” the murderous drug lord “Nacho” Coronel and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, the notorious trafficker who now has a $15 million U.S. government bounty on his head after he became head of the Sinaloa cartel when Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was captured.

After 17 days, the boy was released. According to the Mexican government, Ávila paid the kidnappers $1.4 million dollars to secure his freedom. Other reports, however, suggest she may have paid up to $3 million financed by Zambada and Coronel, one of whom also reportedly gave the kid a black armored BMW to keep him safe.

The boy was free, but the Federal Investigation Agency of Mexico, which had been set up the year before to fight organized crime, was already on her case.

Meanwhile, her relationship with “El Tigre” was blossoming.

“I met him accidentally. At a birthday that was celebrated at my mother's house, he was invited. I arrived at lunch and there I met him. With the passage of time, he began to talk to me, to visit me, and he supported me a lot via businesses that he had with his brother.”

She denies that she knew he was involved in any illegal activities. “No, one of his brothers came to Mexico because they were engaged in textiles. They brought underwear from Colombia and that’s how I met them.”

Underwear was certainly not the only thing they were exporting to Mexico. On July 17, 2002, cops and members of the Mexican Navy seized a tuna vessel named “Macel” that was carrying nine tons of cocaine valued at $80 million. The Mexican authorities said the shipment was linked to Juan Diego Espinosa Ramírez—better known as “El Tigre”—and Sandra Ávila Beltrán.

It would take almost five years for law enforcement to track them down, in February 2007. Legend has it, the police arrested Ávila as she left a high-end beauty parlor in the exclusive neighborhood of Polanco in Mexico City.

“Is a lie,” Ávila says. “They stopped me at the Vips restaurant in San Jeronimo, south of the capital. I was leaving a breakfast. I wasn’t in any beauty salon, let alone in Polanco.”

She says she was sold out by a business partner when she demanded he return an investment she had made. She believes he tipped off the cops about their breakfast meeting. “I was upset with him and I asked him to return my investment. And in order not to do it, what this man did was hand me over to the government. I think,” she said.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Sandra Avila Beltran, 52, a convicted aggravated felon, is watched over by members of the Ministerial Federal Police after her arrival at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City August 20, 2013.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Secretaria de Gobernacion/Handout via Reuters</div>

Sandra Avila Beltran, 52, a convicted aggravated felon, is watched over by members of the Ministerial Federal Police after her arrival at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City August 20, 2013.

Secretaria de Gobernacion/Handout via Reuters

After years of judicial wrangling, Ávila was extradited to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. She eventually pleaded guilty in 2013 in Miami to being an “accessory after the fact” for helping “El Tigre” escape justice. She was sentenced to 70 months in federal custody but by then she had been in jail in Mexico and the U.S. for five years and was soon deported back to Mexico. Once back home, she was initially sentenced to another prison term for money laundering but the Mexican courts threw that conviction out in 2015 and she was released after more than seven years behind bars.

Ávila was one of the first to fall foul of former President Felipe Calderón’s war on drug trafficking after he came to office in 2006. “I was the first,” she said. “A woman is the easiest.”

Calderón has previously been accused of working with the cartel bosses. Drug lord Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a U.S. citizen, wrote a letter to Mexican newspaper Reforma in 2012 claiming that Calderón had met with the cartel bosses himself to strike a working arrangement. He denies the claims.

“[I spent] seven years and five months of my life in prison for something I shouldn’t have. Do you think they don’t owe me? Why isn’t Calderón in there? Do you think Calderon is innocent? I assure you not. They owe me for the pain that they caused my mother that she died of sadness, they owe me freedom, they owe me the damage they did to my son. They owe me a lot and no one punishes them. It is very easy to blame but check it out.”

At that moment, Ávila broke down. Her glassy eyes gave her away; the pain was still there but she did not let a tear run down her cheek.

Have you a clear conscience, I asked? “Yes, I don’t owe anyone anything. I do not hurt anyone.”

Unlike “El Chapo” Guzmán or Caro Quintero, Ávila articulates her answers very carefully. She calculates all her words. And she does it not only because she has lived close to the power that drug trafficking confers, but because she herself embodies the intelligence that allows that wicked empire to succeed.

After years of silence, Ávila now wants to get her words out there.

She has joined TikTok where she challenges some of the notoriety and the rumors that surround her. “So that they see that I am not what they think. There are people who believe that I am frivolous and bad. And yes, I can be good for many and very bad for others. Just so they know me.”

“It is difficult to take away from people an idea that the press, the sayings, the myths, the government have put into them for many years. I knew it was risky because I was exposing myself to criticism and insults. There were many fake accounts that could answer questions alien to them and I decided to be the one to finally speak.”

It remains to be seen if her new found willingness to speak out unapologetically gets Ávila into any more trouble.

She told The Daily Beast that when she was at her release hearing in the U.S., she couldn’t resist the chance to taunt the law enforcement officials one last time.

She said agents from the DEA and the FBI asked her to tell them if she planned to continue her criminal activities and smuggle more drugs into the United States when they let her go.

Ávila gave a mischievous smile and told The Daily Beast she finished by saying: “As an asshole, I say yes!”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.