MEXICO CITY — Blessed with charm and good looks, Sandra Avila Beltran is enthralling Mexico — not as a beauty queen, but as an alleged drug lord.
The story of her arrest and possible extradition to the U.S. is being followed more closely than a telenovela.
Police say she spent more than a decade working her way to the top echelons of Mexico's male-dominated drug trade, uniting Colombian and Mexican gangs and seducing several notorious kingpins.
Dubbed the "Queen of the Pacific," Avila Beltran, 46, even has her own song — a folk ballad about drug traffickers that pays homage to her as "a top lady who is a key part of the business."
Since her arrest last week, the song has been playing often on Mexican radio, and television stations are repeatedly broadcasting a video showing her coyly telling police she is just a housewife and businesswoman. The clip has been seen 40,000 times on YouTube.
Avila Beltran lived largely unnoticed in the northern cities of Guadalajara and Hermosillo until 2001. That's when police found more than 9 tons of cocaine on a ship in the Pacific port of Manzanillo and tracked the shipment to her and her lover, Juan Diego Espinoza Ramirez — known as "the Tiger" and also wanted by U.S. authorities.
It was her romance with Espinoza Ramirez that brought together two powerful cocaine organizations, Mexico's Sinaloa gang and Colombia's Norte del Valle cartel, prosecutors say.
Officials say Avila Beltran was head of "public relations" for the Sinaloa cartel, an unprecedented role for a woman, and as such helped move cocaine from Colombia.
Her success was likely aided by an influential family. She is the niece of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, "the godfather" of Mexican drug smuggling who is serving a 40-year sentence in Mexico for drug smuggling and the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar outside Guadalajara.
Another uncle, Juan Jose Quintero Payan, was extradited to the U.S. last January on drug-trafficking charges, Assistant Federal Public Safety Secretary Patricio Patino said.
Her other love affairs
The only other woman believed to be part of a cartel's leadership is Avila Beltran's distant relative Enedina Arellano Felix, who experts say took over the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel after one of her brothers was killed in a police shootout and her other brother was arrested.
Mexican media have said Avila Beltran had love affairs with other drug lords as well, which helped catapult her into the elite of drug trafficking.
She managed to stay behind the scenes until 2001. A few months after the cocaine seizure, her teenage son was kidnapped in Guadalajara and she contacted authorities for help. The size of the ransom demanded, which police said was $5 million, raised more suspicion among authorities.
Avila Beltran ended up saying she would handle the kidnapping negotiations herself. Patino said she paid $3 million for her son's safe return. She says it was less.
At any rate, U.S. and Mexican authorities took a closer look and began building a case against her. Officers tracked her to Mexico City, where she frequented a pricey restaurant and had her hair colored jet black and her hands manicured in ritzy beauty shops.
More than 30 federal agents arrested her Sept. 28 as she drank coffee at a diner, but she didn't lose her poise. She charmed investigators into letting her apply makeup before police videotaped her transfer to a women's jail.
In the footage, Avila Beltran smiles to the camera while on the arm of a federal agent. She then makes small talk with two guards handcuffing her.
Hours later, police also caught up with Espinoza Ramirez. He, too, smiles broadly in his mug shot.