This module is a resource for lecturers   


Gender and organized crime


Bringing gender into the study of organized crime means more than just talking about how men engage in some crimes or roles while women engage in others. It also means understanding how gender itself is organized and performed by people and the implications thereof. As the examples in this Module show, racism, sexism, classism (see definitions in glossary) and other long-standing forms of discrimination shape people's interactions with one another and the law. The use of an intersectional, gender-based approach allows to provide more nuanced explanations of the participation of men and women in crime, and the ways their roles are often connected to the long-standing, structural conditions they face. People do not become involved in crime just because of their gender or because of their place of birth or class. As discussed earlier, bringing intersectionality to the analysis of crime can help further unpack the reasons behind criminality, and how men and women are impacted differently by enforcement and control.

A useful approach in the study of organized crime is one that considers the gendered dynamics of organized crime as well as how gender is operationalized in the organization and structure of organized criminal groups. In this context, the different experiences of men and women within the realm of organized crime deserve closer attention.


Drivers of recruitment and gender roles in organized criminal groups

If it is true that organized crime is often a men's business and much of what is known has been written by men and about men, it is equally true that better awareness is needed regarding the construction of masculinity and how that affects men's participation in organized crime. Masculinity - the set of attributes, behaviours, and roles associated with boys and men - is another social construction, which describes the qualities and attributes regarded as a characteristic of men. The traditional unhealthy masculinity ideology is sometimes also called toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity includes, for example, suppressing emotions or masking distress, maintaining an appearance of hardness and violence as an indicator of power. Toxic masculinity emphasizes dominance, strength and sexual prowess.

Much like for women, men's decisions and behaviours are also profoundly shaped by rigid social and cultural expectations. Broadening the discussion about how gender norms affect both women and men helps us to better understand the complex ways that these norms and power relations burden our society, and to more effectively engage men and boys in reflections about inequalities and change. Men represent the overwhelming percentage of perpetrators of violent crimes and the reason for this phenomenon is complex and cannot be explained by hormones or inherent gender-linked characteristics. The reason might lie instead in a complex and layered construction of toxic masculinity, encompassing the importance placed on physical strength and aggression, which can result in partaking in criminal behaviour.

For instance, the work of Robert Henry (2015) (see the case study "Performing Masculinity: Indigenous Street Gangs" in the exercise section) has shown how indigenous street gangs do reproduce a notion of the ideal gang member: a tough, independent, emotionless and powerful man. However, men are not simply born with those traits. Henry's work shows that those behaviours are not a mere consequence of being a man but are instead the reflection of high levels of violence and trauma, also rooted in the colonial experience of Native Canadians. Gang members do engage in hyper-violent activities. Yet, his research indicates, these actions are mechanisms developed to protect themselves from further victimization.

While a focus on masculinity and crime has been an ongoing feature of popular culture and the topic has received a great deal of academic attention (see, for instance, Messerschmidt and Tomsen, 2016), not the same can be said about the gendered aspects of women's participation in criminal activities and in organized crime. Women's involvement in organized criminal groups can take many forms. For years, their role was narrated as that of mothers, sisters, wives or lovers of members or leaders of organized criminal groups, often forced into a life of crime because of their proximity with the men in their milieu. It is only in recent times that their involvement in organized illicit activity has been recognized - and studied - in its own right. There is a growing number of examples of - or, perhaps, growing attention paid to - women holding various positions in organized criminal groups, including organizers, leaders, traffickers, recruiters and other participants in criminal organizations, such as lawyers, messengers and accountants (see e.g. Arsovska and Begun, 2014; Sanchez, 2016).

While limited, research on women in organized criminal groups reveals the unique dynamics they face. A study conducted by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and based on more than 30 interviews with young girls and women, who participated in gangs in Cape Town, South Africa, show that women and girls tend to be excluded from leadership positions. It also identifies the prevalence of sex and sexual violence in their interactions with other gang members and with the criminal justice system. Furthermore, it shows that while they are not at the forefront of "gang wars," women and girls are often the ones who face their consequences - for example, incarceration, family separation, deprivation of their parental rights, etc. (Shaw and Skywalker, 2017). This study also sheds some light on the factors that drive women to join an organized criminal group. These findings are not necessarily representative of wider female involvement in organized crime. Nonetheless, they provide very relevant elements for reflection.

Drivers of recruitment of women into organized crime: Women in gangs in Cape Town, South Africa

The interviews conducted with girls and women who participated in gangs in Cape Town, South Africa (Shaw and Skywalker, 2017) revealed several factors that can be understood as drivers of women's recruitment into organized crime:

Feeling of belonging and family
Many of the females interviewed noted that they joined the gang scene because it provided them with a sense of belonging that they felt was missing from their often violent and dysfunctional biological family life. Being part of these gang families also provided the women with security, such as protection, and resources (e.g., money, clothes, and jewellery). Many of these females joined the gangs through romantic relationships with male gang members.

A common reason for joining the gangs mentioned by the women was that the gangs offered them protection. Being part of the gang "families" provided them with security in an often-dangerous environment, in which women were particularly vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence. However, many women noted that they were still subject to such violence from within the gang (e.g. their partners who were gang members).

The gangs also offered these women resources they would otherwise be unable to afford or access, such as jewellery, cars, and clothing. Access to these goods was often through the women's boyfriends and gang bosses.

"The path of least resistance"
Some women reported that joining a gang was easier than resisting - it was the path of least resistance. Joining the gang also provided them with "immediate rewards" as a result.

Under- and unemployment in the licit economy
Several of the women noted that the gangs offered more exciting opportunities with larger rewards compared to the jobs available to them in the licit economy. The few ordinary employment opportunities the women found, often in the retail sector, were described as "boring and poorly paid".

Substance abuse
According to some women interviewed, they saw joining gangs as one of the only options left to them because of their struggle with substance abuse. Their addictions made it difficult to find steady and licit employment and made them particularly vulnerable to violence. Gangs offered not only protection (to a certain extent), but access to substances as well.

The use of a gender lens allows us to see that the experiences of women in organized crime are not limited to being the romantic interests of men, and that men are not merely the heads of criminal organizations. Many women and men, including many of whom are indigenous, migrant, or low-income, often opt to engage in criminalized activities to support themselves and/or their families amid a structural lack of opportunities like employment or education. Many women convicted for their participation in organized crime have long histories of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, in addition to having endured harassment and discrimination. Young men also tend to describe experiences of physical abuse, lack of employment and educational options, criminalization as a result of their class, race and gender (UNICEF 2017). Around the world young men are those most likely to experience violence and, as numbers show, they account for the vast majority of homicides globally, with almost half of all homicide victims aged 15-29 and slightly less than a third aged 30-44 (UNODC, 2013). At the time of the 2013 UNODC Global Study on Homicides, the homicide rate for male victims aged 15-29 in South America and Central America was more than four times the global average rate for that age group, likely because of the higher levels of homicide related to organized crime in those regions. At the same time, women and girls accounted for 21% of all the homicide victims, almost half of which were killed by their intimate partners or family members. As these data highlight, intimate partner/family-related homicide disproportionately affects women (UNODC, 2013).

This pattern of violence and discrimination was identified by another study focusing on women in gangs in a different part of the world, the so-called Northern Triangle in Central America, comprising El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This research, which also results from a series of interviews with gang members conducted over three years, highlights that there are multiple economic, social and personal factors to be considered in the decision to join a gang, but often their common backdrop - for men and women alike - is a context of social inequality, sexual violence, child abuse, unemployment and easy access to drugs and firearms, generally combined with an upbringing in gangs-ridden neighbours (Interpeace, 2013).

Men and women rituals of initiation into gangs (MS-13 and Barrio 18) in Central America

For their ritual of initiation - known as "chequeo" in some Central American gangs like Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 - men are asked to endure a beating by gang members, the duration of which varies and depends on the gang one wishes to join (for instance, the procedure would last 13 seconds if one were to join MS-13 and 18 for Barrio 18). Women, on the other hand, are given two options: the first one is the beating, while the second one is to sustain sexual relations with multiple gang members for an equal amount of time. Nonetheless, as gang members report, choosing the second option would result in an immediate loss of respect, as enduring a beating shows strength, honour and courage, thus reproducing a model of masculinity that is extremely important for the group. Those women who opt for the sexual abuse will never be truly considered full members of the gang. A third way to join the gang is by proximity, or in other words, when the woman is the girlfriend or wife of the gang member. In such case, and if the member is important enough in the group, the woman would not have to endure either ritual of initiation. These women are treated respectfully by the rest of the gang, although they are expected to tolerate frequent infidelity and if they reciprocate the practice, their punishment can be death.

Source: Interpeace, 2013

As these empirical studies show, women in gangs are often destined to cover that role of care-takers that is typical of patriarchal societies: they look after the children as well as the sick and wounded, cook for the group, take care of the needs of their man and stay loyal to him. At the same time, organized criminal groups learned to take advantage of the lack of attention law enforcement and rival gangs used to pay to women and started using them as arms and drugs traffickers, spies and messengers. Their roles as messengers is particularly relevant when the leader of the group is a fugitive or put behind bars. In some countries, organized crime-related offences carry with them a particularly strict regime of detention, which limits visiting rights to family members and spouses (see, for instance Article 41-bis of the Italian Prison Administration Act, a security regime for persons convicted for particularly serious crimes, such as mafia-related crimes or terrorism, which aims to ensure that they cannot keep contact with the criminal network they belong to. See also Panama's Executive Decree No. 72 of 2018, which created "Centres of Preventive Detention for Persons Deprived of their Liberty Qualified as Extreme Dangerous" in connection with organized crime offences: the first one of these centres was created in Punta Coco, an island off the Panamanian shore, declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Justice of the country and reopened in February 2019). In such cases, women become their proxies and their role can range from simple message delivering to handling the day-to-day operations of the group and, in some cases, they become the ad-interim leaders of the group. At times, they manage to keep this position even when the man is released from prison. Women from different parts of the world have been known to run successful organized criminal groups. For some of them, crime is part of their family business - not seldom, for generations. Others come in contact with it because of their personal experiences and the choices in their life. The boxes that follow recount only few of their stories.

Women as leaders of organized criminal groups: Raffaella D'Alterio

Raffaella D'Alterio (see also the exercise section of Module 6) was the daughter of a Camorra boss (one of the Mafia-type organized criminal groups having their base in and around Naples) and later got married to one. She took over the leadership of the group when her husband, Nicola Pianese, was arrested in 2002 and after his release, they started a bloody feud over control of the criminal organization. Allegedly, the family war ended when Raffaella arranged to have her husband killed. She remained the leader of the group until 2012, when the Italian Carabinieri arrested her together with other 65 members of the group and confiscated property valued over $10 million. The court brought over 70 criminal counts against them, including of criminal association, extortion, drug trafficking and illicit arms possession.

Source: Di Meo, 2012

Women as leaders of organized criminal groups: Sister Ping

Cheng Chui Ping, also known as Sister Ping, ran a successful human smuggling operation between Hong Kong and New York City from 1984 until 2000.

To the authorities, Ping was the "mother of all snakeheads," a ruthless businesswoman who smuggled what is believed to be thousands of Chinese people into the United States. US Prosecutors said her smuggling ring amassed millions in profits in the two decades she operated, taking advantage of the desperation of migrants. Furthermore, prosecutors said, for those who made the trip safely but could not pay, Ping sent vicious gangs to abduct and beat, torture or rape them until they paid off their debts.

When the "Golden Venture," a rusty freight ship loaded with 300 immigrants, ran aground off the coast of New York in 1993, 10 people died. The accident was traced to Sister Ping, who became the enduring symbol of migrant smuggling. Her case also helped popularize the term snakehead, from the Chinese translation for human-smuggler.

Source: United States Attorney Southern District of New York, 2006

Women as leaders of organized criminal groups: Sandra Ávila Beltrán

Sandra Ávila Beltrán is a Mexican woman known for her involvement in the trafficking of cocaine from Colombia through Mexico to the United States. Arrested in 2007 after several years of activity, she was charged for her involvement in a conspiracy to commit drug trafficking and sentenced to 10 years in prison. By 2012, after serving a few years of her sentence in Mexico, she was extradited to the United States, where she also faced charges for drug trafficking. In 2013, she was deported from the United States and sent back to Mexico to face additional charges for money laundering. She was finally released in 2015.

Ávila Beltrán gained notoriety given her leadership role. Known as "La Reina del Pacifico" - the Queen of the Pacific - she was believed to run a successful cocaine trafficking operation in cooperation with Colombian nationals through Mexico. Money laundering charges were also filed against her.

There are two aspects important to consider in Ávila Beltrán's criminal experience. One, the fact that she occupied a position of power in a predominantly male business. Men are more likely than women to perform leadership activities in drug trafficking. Yet Ávila Beltrán benefited from her own family's lengthy history in drug trafficking, and her multiple connections to establish a successful and long-lasting operation along Mexico's western coast. Second, her role as a mother. She could have remained successful and perhaps undetected by the authorities hadn't it been for the kidnapping of her son, presumably by rivals. Fearing a negative outcome, Avila Beltran contacted the authorities following the disappearance and her inability to come up with the ransom that the kidnappers demanded. While Ávila Beltrán's son was released in a few days, the authorities became suspicious of her and the reasons behind the kidnapping, leading to her becoming the target of a long-term investigation into her drug trafficking activities that culminated with her arrest.

For a video of Ávila Beltrán reflecting on her life after prison, watch this video published by The Guardian.

Source: BBC, 2015

Motherhood has historically played a decisive part in defining the role and career of women involved in mafia-type criminal groups. Typically, the woman has the pivotal role of custodian of the mafia-cultural code as well as the task of transmitting those values to her children and encouraging them to avenge the family when need be (Ingrascì, 2007). In addition, they have also covered two passive roles that are of undiscussed importance for the economy of the organized criminal group: that of defenders of their man's reputation as well as bargaining chips for the establishment of new alliances through arranged marriages. Traditionally, mafia women were completely dedicated to family and represented the architype of obedient wives and exemplary mothers. To discuss the effective engagement of women in mafia-like criminal organizations, it is necessary to recognize the "institutional" barriers they had to face to join the group. The active membership of women in these criminal associations has developed unevenly across different groups as some, such as La Cosa Nostra in Sicily, have a more rigid honour code, which did not allow women to cover roles of relevance in the organization. Concurrently with the societal emancipation of women and the tightening of the legislative system against organized crime in many States, the mafias opened their ranks to women who today are found to be covering multiple roles, even some of fundamental importance and recognized to bring value for these groups, such as financial managers of the organizations (Ingrascì, 2007).

The examples highlighted in this section point to the fact that in different types of organized criminal groups across the world women are assuming more prominent positions. At the same time, these organizations often maintain patriarchal structures and are built on traditional masculine values. Women need to adapt to succeed and often their fate remains connected with that of the man in their life. Concurrently, as they are believed to be less suspicious in the eyes of authorities, they are often doing a lot of the "dirty work" of the organization (e.g. moving drugs, transporting arms, gathering intelligence on rival gangs), therefore taking many of the risks. Lacking knowledge of the intelligence or insider information on the groups or people they work with also translates into them being unable to negotiate reduced sentences during their criminal processes, in jurisdictions where mitigation in exchange for cooperation is possible (Malinowska and Rychkova, 2015). This phenomenon contributes to the rising female incarceration rates across the world.

In recent years, the number of women and girls in prison worldwide has increased by some 53% since about 2000, a rise that cannot be explained in terms of global population growth (global population rose by 21% between mid-2000 and mid-2016) (Walmsley, 2016). Worldwide, more than 700,000 women are held in penitentiary institutions, either as pre-trial detainees or sentenced prisoners. Many of these women come from marginalized and disadvantaged backgrounds and are often characterized by histories of violence, physical and sexual abuse (van den Bergh, Brenda J., Gatherer, Alex, Fraser, Andrew and Moller, Lars, 2011). Disadvantaged ethnic minorities, foreign nationals and indigenous people constitute a larger proportion of the female prison population relative to their proportion within the general community, often due to the specific problems these vulnerable groups face in society (van den Bergh, Brenda J., Gatherer, Alex, Fraser, Andrew and Moller, Lars, 2011).

For a more detailed analysis of the topic of gender in the criminal justice system, see Module 10 on Gender in the Criminal Justice System of the E4J University Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

Next: Gender and different types of organized crime
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