MEXICO CITY – When the body of Joselyn Niño was discovered hacked to pieces and crammed into an ice cooler on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015, the ongoing war between the drug cartels’ most secretive and efficient killers took a turn for the worse.
Known as “Las Flakas” (Skinny Girls), young Mexican women are taking up lives of crime alongside their male counterparts, becoming extremely effective agents for the cartels’ cause.
“They are ideal killers; young, beautiful and reckless,” said Andrew Chesnut, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “By keeping a low profile they avoid suspicion where men doing the same job would quickly find themselves in trouble,” he told Fox News.
Joselyn Niño was a notorious assassin for the Gulf Cartel. She was very active on social media, where she would boast of her bloody achievements. She was murdered and butchered by another young woman, La Gladys of the Zetas, who remains at large terrorizing the communities of northern Mexico.
Today, all of Mexico’s major criminal cartels have female “Flaka” death squads. While the woman’s traditional role within drug trafficking organizations was to launder drug money and raise the children, many young women already connected to drug trafficking choose the lives of assassins and are deployed for missions where subtlety and infiltration are more important than brute force.
“The Flakas come into the work through a series of different routes,” said Chesnut, who is a leading expert on La Santa Muerte (Saint Death, also known as La Flaca), a scythe-wielding patroness to drug traffickers. “Many come in through the traditional path of low-level lookout work for the cartel, while others arrive through prostitution, birth into cartel families, or are recruited during short spells in prison.”
“These girls are all active on social media, and in seeing images of the drug traffickers’ lifestyles, they naturally want a piece of it themselves,” he added.
Since Mexico’s drug war started in 2007, the crackdown on the feared sicario death squads made the work of The Flakas more valuable, allowing them to be sent on work then deemed too dangerous for the male cartel soldiers.
The Flakas disguise themselves as ordinary Mexican girls to pass unsuspected by aggressors, yet they typically undergo cosmetic surgery to enhance their features and get undisputed male attention. They gain the trust of their marks through charm.
Operating in squads of three or four, they generally target other women belonging to rival cartels, seeking dominance within their territories.
“There’s an inextricable link between sex and death in the culture of these female killers,” said Chesnut, “in seeking to be the most desired by the narco men, they seek also to be the most brutal among their group of peers. It’s gone as far as having them worship the image of Saint Death in their own likenesses, dressed in lingerie.”
Last year, one female killer known as "La Peque" was captured by the authorities for her work for the Sinaloa Cartel in northwestern Mexico. Having admitted to the murder of at least five men, she added that she enjoyed both drinking the warm blood of her victims and having sex with the dead bodies following the homicide.
Yet the success of Las Flakas within the male-dominated world of drug trafficking has produced tension. Once notoriety has been achieved, their lives tend to be cut short due either to capture by police, betrayal by their own, or murder at the hands of rival cartels.
“Joselyn came to a grisly end because she made herself famous over social media, gloating over her achievements,” Chesnut said.
“These girls know that they have to keep a low profile for their work, but for many the temptation to post on Instagram and Twitter is too great and they end up making themselves targets.”
One Flaka who has been successful in balancing her work with her life has been “La Malandra” (The Thugette), an agent of the brutal Zeta cartel who regularly posts pictures armed with a bulletproof vest and a long-wave radio. During a nine-year career in the industry, she remains at large, still passing for an ordinary young Mexican throughout the country.
“They all have a very strong sense of fatalism,” said Chesnut. “Young people’s lives don’t last long when they’re surrounded by organized crime, so for these young women the only option is to fight. If they do it wisely, they can survive a lot longer than their male counterparts.”
Vigilante groups in Mexico have given the federal government a very public headache, since they're violent yet ultimately have the same goal in mind: to take away power from the cartels.
Alasdair Baverstock is a freelance writer based in Mexico.