A federal court in Mexico has ruled that Sandra Avila Beltran, also known as the “Queen of the Pacific,” cannot be extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges, a decision that comes as a major victory to one of the most well known figures of Mexico’s criminal underworld.
According to El Universal, the Mexico City-based First Circuit Court has ruled that Ms. Avila’s extradition, which had been authorized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is unlawful because it involves the same charges (drug trafficking) that she faces in Mexico. Under international law, it is customary for a person to be extradited to another country only if they face a different, and typically more serious, set of criminal charges.
Avila first gained attention from the media in September 2007 when she and her love interest, convicted Colombian drug trafficker Juan Diego Espinosa Ramírez, alias "El Tigre," were arrested by Mexican authorities for allegedly conspiring to smuggle nine tons of cocaine northward via a port in Colima in 2001.
Since then, Mexican and American media outlets have been fascinated by her, with Newsweek magazine calling her Mexico’s “Underworld Queenpin” and ABC news referring to her as Mexico’s “Glamorous Gangster.” As InSight Crime has noted, Avila raises interesting questions about gender roles in Mexico’s drug trade. Her flashy outfits and posh tastes are a rare sight in the world of drug trafficking, which is more often marked by images of scruffy, dangerous-looking men.
Even before earning the title “Queen of the Pacific” by becoming a key link between the Sinaloa Cartel and Colombia's Norte del Valle Cartel, Avila‘s life seemed destined to revolve around criminal activities. She was born into a family closely associated with drug trafficking, and her uncle was Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias “the Godfather,” who was one of Mexico’s first major drug traffickers.
Over the years, she ascended the country’s criminal hierarchy by using romantic relationships to her advantage. Both of her ex-husbands were notoriously corrupt police chiefs, and both were murdered in drug-related killings. Prior to her current relationship with Espinosa Ramirez, Avila was romantically linked with Ismael Zambada García, alias "El Mayo," a major figure in the Sinaloa Cartel.
To this day she enjoys significant influence because of her criminal ties, a fact that was most recently evidenced in January, when a prison doctor gave her a facial Botox injection while in prison, a luxury procedure that is not authorized for Mexican inmates. The treatment sparked something of a scandal in Mexico’s justice system, resulting in the dismissal of the prison's director and hospital chief.
Still, Avila’s current level of involvement in criminal activities is not clear. For her part, she claims that her only source of income comes from “selling clothes and renting houses," a claim that, considering her background, is highly suspect to say the least. In December, a Mexican judge absolved her of the 2001 drug trafficking charges, saying that the prosecution failed to “establish the circumstances of time, manner, place, and occasion” in which the crimes were committed. Despite the acquittal, federal attorneys have vowed to appeal the ruling. Additionally, in March Avila was charged with laundering money, and a court has ordered that she remain in detention while awaiting a trial.
The most recent decision effectively blocks Avila from being extradited, unless US prosecutors are able to submit new, extraditable charges in their case against her. This surely irks US drug officials, who are already frustrated by delays in the prosecution of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias “La Barbie,” which have postponed the timeline for his extradition.
--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.