IWMF Spotlight: Reporting on Organized Crime

Deborah Bonello’s “Narcas: The Secret Rise of Women in Latin America’s Cartels”

In this month’s newsletter, we are featuring stories from the IWMF community about organized crime.

We caught up with journalist Deborah Bonello, who has been bringing a gendered lens to covering criminal syndicates and drug markets, including the violence and culture connected to this world. Bonello published Narcas: The Secret Rise of Women in Latin America’s Cartels, after reporting on the topic at length through her fellowship with Adelante, a reporting initiative made possible by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. 

Read a couple of Bonello’s feature stories in Vice News here and here.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

IWMF: How did you first begin reporting on women in organized crime?

Deborah Bonello: “….I’d been here [Mexico City] probably about five years when I started working for Insight Crime, a think tank, and I got a very broad education about organized crime in the region and turned into a proper narco nerd. I noticed how women were pigeonholed and the investigations centered around these really narrow roles that they employed. There was this glamorization, minimization, sexualization of women, as the wives, the girlfriends, the sex trafficking victims, which is all very real. I don’t deny that that’s a thing. But what I didn’t see were women who were part of the business, the organization. And as I started to look into that, I found that there were loads of women and that, in fact, one of the people on Chapo’s indictment was a woman. And I Googled her, and there was her guilty plea in Chicago, and and that was basically it. And I was like, how is it that the only woman on Chapo’s indictment who was a lieutenant to his son is not a household name or not known at all. And that’s kind of how it got started…”

IWMF: What safety measures did you take as a journalist? Any advice for other journalists covering organized crime?

“I didn’t focus on women who are currently in power. It seemed to me way too high risk to be writing about people who were currently in power….Most of the women I was speaking to were either incarcerated or had been through the U.S. justice system. So nothing I was going to write was going to put their business relationships in jeopardy at that time. I always worked with local journalists when I was in Sinaloa, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. If something seemed very high risk, I just wouldn’t do it. That’s my general rule. If you have any doubt that you’re going to come back, then don’t go. It’s really simple. And I think people have this image of, you know, me going and knocking on Narcos’ doors, and there’s a tiny bit of that. But most of it is trawling through thousands of illegal documents, repeatedly emailing immigration and criminal defense lawyers and prosecutors who don’t want to speak to you, trawling through press coverage and deciding what you can rely on and what you can’t….”

IWMF: What surprised you most while working on this project? 

“The conversation around gender is so different to what it was 10 to 15 years ago. Everything from women’s empowerment to trans rights and the whole spectrum of conversation about gender and gendered stereotypes… So it surprises me how surprised some people are at the fact that women are more than just the trophy wives and girlfriends. If we see women bossing it in tennis, football, banking, technology and all these legal industries, why would it surprise us so much that women are capable of running drug cartels? I suppose it’s the ethical question and people are surprised that women can be delinquent and criminal and break the law. So I’m surprised how surprised people are.”

“…I am forever grateful to IWMF for [the reporting grant through Adelante]. I was working for Vice at the time [and] I think it gave the bosses at Vice more confidence in my work, seeing that there were people who were willing to invest that amount of money in the project.”  -Deborah Bonello

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