Women in the international cocaine trade: gender, choice and agency in context
Fleetwood, Jennifer Swanson
This thesis is about women in the international cocaine trade and in particular about their experiences as drug mules. This is the first comprehensive qualitative investigation based on the accounts of women and men who worked as drug mules and those who organise and manage trafficking cocaine by mule across international borders. Two explanations for women’s involvement in drug trafficking compete. The ‘feminisation of poverty’ thesis contends that women’s participation in the drug trade results from (and is a response to) their economic and social subordination. The ‘emancipation thesis’ contends that women’s participation in the drugs trade is an effect of women’s liberation. This thesis explores if and how women’s involvement in the drug trafficking (recruitment and ‘work’) is shaped by their gender. I interviewed 37 men and women drug traffickers imprisoned in Quito, Ecuador. This location was chosen due to the high numbers of women and men imprisoned for drug trafficking crimes. Respondents came from all levels of the drug trade and from different parts of the world. Data was collected and analysed using narrative analysis to understand the way in which discourses of victimhood were created in prison. This allowed for a sensitive interpretation of the meaning of victimhood and agency in respondents’ responses. The substantive section of the thesis examines two aspects of women’s involvement in drug trafficking in depth. The first section examines aspects of women’s recruitment into the drug trade as mules; the second section examines the work that mules do. This research finds that women’s participation in the international cocaine trade cannot be adequately understood through the lens of either victimisation or volition. The contexts in which men and women chose to work as a mule were diverse reflecting their varied backgrounds (nationality, age, experience, employment status, as well as gender). Furthermore, mules’ motivations reflected not only volition but also coercion and sometimes threat of violence. Although gender was a part of the context in which respondents became involved in mulework, it was not the only, or the most important aspect. Secondly, this research examined the nature of mule-work. Most mules (men and women) willingly entered a verbal contract to work as a drugs mule; nonetheless the context of ‘mule-work’ is inherently restrictive. Mules were subject to surveillance and management by their ‘contacts’ had few opportunities to have control or choice over their work. Collaboration, resistance and threat were often played out according to gendered roles and relationships but gender was not a determining factor. Nonetheless, respondents could and did find ways to negotiate resist and take action in diverse and creative ways. Prior research on the cocaine trade has ignored the importance of women’s participation or has considered it only in limited ways driven by gender stereotypes. Thus, this research addresses a significant gap in available evidence on women in the drug trade. This research also contributes to contemporary debates in theories of women’s offending which have centred on the role of victimisation and agency in relation to women’s offending.