MEXICO CITY — Sandra Ávila Beltrán is Mexico’s most legendary female drug trafficker. Known as "Queen of the Pacific," she helped connect the fabled Sinaloa cartel with Colombian cocaine providers before she was finally caught, and spent seven years in prison in the U.S. and Mexico.
“I’m the real deal,” she says in one of her recent videos, outfitted in leopard-print pajamas and her black hair tied up in a towel.
“Pardon my appearance,” she says. “I just had a bath and am packing because I'm going to travel, but before leaving I wanted to thank you all for being with me.”
Ávila Beltrán is part of Mexican old-school, drug-trafficking royalty and allegedly the inspiration behind the character Isabella Bautista in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico. She is believed to be the niece of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the godfather of the first Mexican drug-trafficking syndicate, the Guadalajara Cartel. It has also been reported that she’s related to Rafael Caro Quintero, another founding member of the Guadalajara drug cartel, who was recently arrested, again, in Mexico.
Now, after spending a lifetime in the shadows, she’s turning to social media to trade on her mythical status in Mexican culture.
“Her ability to promote herself may be due to her early studies in communication at the University of Guadalajara,” said historian Elaine Carey, who wrote a book about female drug traffickers in Mexico.
Though Ávila Beltrán is related to Mexico’s most powerful narco figures, she was a powerhouse in her own right. During the time that she was involved in the Latin American drug business—sometime in the late 1980s until her arrest in 2007 in Mexico City—she “was instrumental in building ties between the Sinaloa cartel and Colombian cocaine traffickers,” according to a Congressional Report.
She was dubbed the Queen of the Pacific sometime after she was connected to nine tons of cocaine seized in a fishing boat off the Mexican Pacific coast in 2001. Reporting around that time connected her to Juan Diego Espinoza Ramirez, alias the Tiger, a figure in the then-Colombian Norte del Valle cartel. Their partnership enabled business between his cocaine production ops in Colombia and the Sinaloa cartel’s transportation services that Ávila Beltrán allegedly hooked him up with.
Following her arrest in Mexico in 2007, Ávila Beltrán was extradited to the U.S. in 2012 to face charges that she was a key link in a cocaine conspiracy. After initially claiming innocence, she cut a deal with prosecutors and got a 70-month sentence in 2013 after pleading guilty to being "an accessory after the fact.” She was deported to Mexico in August that year, where she was promptly arrested again, this time on money laundering charges. She got five more years, walked free in 2015, and went on to live a low-profile life in Guadalajara, Mexico. Until now.
As is often the case with women in the drug trade, media attention has been more focused on her physical assets and romantic ties with male narcos than with her business acumen and achievements. Such lenses tend to overlook and underestimate women’s power in the illicit business world. An investigation by VICE World News revealed that women’s role in organized crime has been underestimated for decades.
“She never was simply a sexy wife or girlfriend.”
“She never was simply a sexy wife or girlfriend,” said Carey. “Like many men who reach high levels in the drug trade, she had the family connections and networks that allowed her to move between licit and illicit businesses. It is in her blood.”
But despite her racy past, Ávila Beltrán’s TikTok is so far anything but. Videos show her paying visits to the bank and posing for the camera in bars and nightclubs with friends in what appears to be a deeply pedestrian post-trafficking existence.
Her fans don’t seem to care. Despite her account being just a month old, the former Queen Pin has nearly 43,000 followers, with tens of thousands of likes on each of her videos.
It’s not clear why Ávila Beltrán has decided to go public on TikTok in recent weeks—she declined a few interview requests from VICE World News for this article.
But after being in the shadows for so long, it’s possible she wants to capitalize on her narco fame and fans like many of her male colleagues. It recently emerged that her uncle Félix Gallardo is preparing to launch a range of branded merchandise from his prison cell, and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has a number of commercial businesses related to his trafficking fame, one of them owned by his daughter and another by his wife, Emma Coronel.
It’s possible that Ávila Beltrán doesn’t want to let all her life’s work and fame go unnoticed. But if her plan is to cash in via her TikTok presence, she’ll have to work a little harder to make her content live up to the past lives she has lived.
Follow Deborah Bonello on Twitter.