All powerful, dangerous, and capable of leading organized crime syndicates or gangs, these nine women mean serious business.
1. Sandra Ávila Beltrán
Called “The Queen of the Pacific” by the media, Sandra Ávila Beltrán is a leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico. She was born into a family of cartel members – possibly third generation – but was careful to never leave behind any evidence of her criminal activities. For years, Ávila Beltrán operated without drawing police attention, but in 2001, authorities seized a tuna boat carrying nine tons of cocaine that was traced back to Sandra and her lover. A few months later, police suspicions surmounted when she reported that her teenage son was kidnapped for a $5 million ransom. He was eventually returned safely, but authorities continued to investigate Ávila Beltrán. She was convicted of money laundering in 2007, and spent about seven years in prison.
According to Tucsan.com, “she charmed investigators into letting her apply makeup before police videotaped her transfer to a women's jail.”
2. Enedina Arellano Felix
A distant relative of Sandra Ávila Beltrán, Enedina Arellano Felix is considered by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to be the world’s first female drug lord. As a girl, Enedina wanted to become the queen of a carnival in Mazatlán, but because of her family’s drug trafficking activities, those dreams were never realized.
She began leading the Tijuana Cartel after her brother Eduardo Arellano Félix was arrested in 2008. Previously, she worked for the cartel behind the scenes as a money launderer, which she had done, to some degree, since she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from a private university in Guadalajara.
Now known as the "The Boss," "The Godmother" and "The Narco-mother," Enedina Arellano Felix has managed to survived the fall of her brothers and the widespread takedowns of cartel bosses in Mexico.
3. Griselda Blanco
Colombian drug lord of the Medellín Cartel, Griselda Blanco goes by many names: “La Madrina,” “Black Widow,” “Cocaine Godmother” and “Queen of Narco-Trafficking.” From the 1970s to the early 2000s, Griselda was a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine drug trade and criminal underworld, but she also transported narcotics to New York and Southern California. Over the course of her criminal career, it is estimated that she was responsible for about two hundred murders; and she started early.
At just eleven years old, Blanco allegedly kidnapped and attempted to ransom a child from an upscale neighborhood in Colombia. When the child’s parents did not take her seriously and refused to pay the ransom, Griselda shot the child.
Thus, it’s no surprise that Blanco’s gangsters and their rivals had a violent way of conducting business. And that violence created an atmosphere of lawlessness, particularly in Miami, that broke out into a full on drug war known as the Cocaine Cowboy Wars.
Blanco’s U.S. distribution network brought in about $80,000,000 per month. In 1985, she was arrested by DEA agents and sent to prison, though her incarceration did not stop Griselda from running her cocaine business. Still, almost 20 years later, she was released from prison and deported to Colombia, where she died in a drive by shooting in 2012.
But that’s not all there is to Griselda Blanco’s story. Check out our episode on the Cocaine Godmother.
4. Phoolan Devi
The “Bandit Queen” was born to a low-caste family in India in 1963 and was only eleven years old when she was married off to a man three times her age, in exchange for a cow. Over the course of several years, Phoolan Devi’s husband abused her, and she made several unsuccessful escape attempts. Eventually, when she was sixteen years old, her husband sent her back to her family, marking her as a social outcast.
With no other prospects, she joined a group of dacoits of mixed castes in 1979 and took revenge against her abusive husband. The gang dragged him from his home, and Phoolan repeatedly stabbed him. Although her husband survived the ordeal, fellow villagers avoided him out of fear of retribution.
Phoolan and the gang robbed upper-caste folks, occasionally targeting fancy cars on highways and kidnapping for ransom. Unfortunately, tensions between the different castes of bandits led to a gunfight. Phoolan was taken captive by those of the higher Rajput caste to Behmai village, where she was repeatedly beaten and sexually abused by several men. Three weeks later, she escaped with the help of two low-caste gang members and a villager.
Again, Phoolan sought revenge. She formed her own gang of bandits – comprised only of members from her own caste – and returned to the village; however, none of her rapists were there. Frustrated, Phoolan had her gang round up all the Rajput men present – about twenty-two – and shot them. She was not immediately caught by authorities, but when hard times befell her gang in 1983, Phoolan negotiated a surrender.
Phoolan Devi spent eleven years in jail waiting for a trial that never came. In 1994, she was released on parole and, not long after, all charges were dropped against her. Phoolan turned to Buddhism and ran for Parliament. The Bandit Queen served as a member of Parliament from 1996-1998 and then again from 1999 until she was assassinated in 2001 for the Behmai massacre.
5. Rosetta Cutolo
For a number of years, Rosetta “Ice Eyes” Cutolo was the de facto Camorra mob boss, as her brother Raffaele Cutolo, the head of the Nuova Camorra Organizzata (NCO), lived inside maximum-security jails or psychiatric prisons since 1963. Although Raffaele sent her instructions, Rosetta effectively ran the day-to-day operations of the mafia herself. She had a head for numbers, and negotiated business deals with South American cocaine barons by herself.
In the early 1980s, Rosetta ordered a hit on police headquarters, but ultimately failed to blow it up as intended. Not long after, a police raid on her stronghold sent Rosetta on the lam. She escaped with the help of a local priest who hid her under a rug in a car and drove her past police checkpoints. For the next ten years, she was not seen in public. Instead, Rosetta directed mob affairs from a series of safe houses in different cities.
After years of searching, the police finally find her hideout in 1993. Tired of living a fugitive’s life, Rosetta gave herself up without a fight. However, she claimed innocence at her trial, which was corroborated by her brother and other gang members. In the end, Rosetta Cutolo only served five years in prison.
6. Charmaine Roman
After arresting Charmaine Roman in 2013, Central Florida police learned that she was not just involved in a violent Jamaican marijuana trafficking ring; Charmaine was the kingpin. Prosecutors alleged that Roman laundered millions of dollars in drug money at the Wynn casino in Las Vegas, and through an inactive concert promotion company called Sure Thing Investments. Authorities seized 3,200 pounds of marijuana, guns, cars and $200,000 in cash from her operation.
7. Jemeker Thompson
During the height of the 1980s crack epidemic, Jemeker Thompson, dubbed the “Queen Pin,” rose to the top of the Los Angeles cocaine trade. In her youth, Jemeker was kicked out of her home, and had to find a way to support herself. She struck a partnership with Anthony M. “Daff” Mosley, an older man who ran a lucrative cocaine-trafficking business; they later married and had a son together.
When Mosley was killed in a drive by shooting, Thompson was devastated, but she persevered. In addition to expanding her cocaine-trafficking business across the United States, she also invested in an L.A.-based hair business that sold products to celebrities. For a time, she dated a man nicknamed “Cheese,” but when they broke up, he ratted her out to authorities. Jemeker spent the next two years of her life on the run, but in 1993, her son’s 6th grade graduation ceremony was set to take place. When she came home to support her son, police were waiting for Jemeker at the ceremony and arrested her.
The “Queen Pin” served time in a maximum-security prison until 2005 but is now an evangelical minister at Second Chance Ministries in South Central, Los Angeles. Her ministerial mission is to show others that they'll always have a second chance in life through God.
8. Grace O’Malley
Strictly speaking, Grace O'Malley did not run an organized crime organization or gang, but the way she ran her shipping and trading business as the Chieftain of the O'Malley clan in the 16th century was not exactly legal. After inheriting her father’s title and business following his death, Grace’s ships began physically enforcing a tax on ships traveling in the waters off her lands. Those refusing to hand over cash or a portion of their cargo were met with either violence or murder.
9. Ching Shih
Though Ching Shih was also not an organized crime lord, she was a pirate commanding a massive fleet of 1,800 vessels in the early 1800s, manned by as many as 220,000 pirates. She directly commanded 300 of the vessels, with crew numbering between 20,000-40,000. The code she developed for her fleet to follow was strictly and severely enforced. Those who disobeyed orders or raped female captives were put to death.
In 1810, when the Chinese government offered amnesty to all pirates, Ching Shih retired from her life of piracy, and opened a gambling house.
If you liked out this article, check out Female Criminals, the true crime Parcast podcast where women aren’t just the victims. Every week, we examine the psychology, motivations, and atrocities of female felons. New episodes come out every Wednesday.