When we think of the ‘international cocaine trade,’ many images come to mind: Suits. Black hats. ‘Gangsters.’ Nightclubs. Violence. Men. But whilst most of us appear to be aware of this globally organised network, not many of us know the lived experiences of those within, particularly those of women.

For the second All Souls Criminology Seminar of the academic year, Dr Jennifer Fleetwood from the University of Leicester  presented on her recently published doctoral research on imprisoned female drug mules in the international cocaine trade. Through personal accounts from the women themselves, she explored the ways in which gender and agency can be entangled in a network so dominated by masculinity and aggression, where females are assumed vulnerable, becoming involved only by coercion or accident. Whereas men are typically seen to be the ruthless brains of drug trafficking operations, women tend to hold more vulnerable identities as mere ‘bodies,’ perceived to be not ‘real’ traffickers but just participating passively by accident or coercion. Depictions like that of Dean et al. (2010)―‘ensnared victims like these… can be anyone’s daughters’―only exacerbate these perceptions.

Through the lens of narrative criminology, Dr Fleetwood asks: how do women really get involved in the drug trade? How does gender―particularly femininity―fit within the realm of this male-dominated, international crime network?

Her research, gathered from the depths of an Ecuadorian prison, provides a unique snapshot of personal accounts from female drug mules from all over the world. Prisons here are at double capacity, with shortages of food, work, and health care, to say the least. Participating in a number of interviews, the women revealed how they became involved in the drug trade, what they thought of their actions, and what happened behind the scenes. Some spoke of their roles as mothers or wives, and expressed the desire to provide for their families. Others focused on idealised notions of love that drew them to the drug trade, in pursuit of future wifehood. Most of these accounts speak to ‘gendered narratives,’ drawing on existing identities related to love, maternal instinct, motherly or wifely roles, and money. Dr Fleetwood suggested that rather than being forced into it, these women in fact ‘talk themselves into offending.’

Lifting the lid on feminine stereotypes, Dr Fleetwood’s research suggests women draw on these popular discourses about female drug mules to make sense of their actions, using their victimhood or motherly roles as justifications for their involvement. This positioning separates them from the ‘hard’ drug criminal stereotype, often attached to men, allowing them to preserve their feminine self-identities. For example, one participant described how she assumed her (male) trafficker was violent and ruthless―despite never having met him―and believed he would kill her if she didn’t follow through with her role. Dr Fleetwood’s research reveals how these women manage gender stigma, through the vulnerable drug mule identity, in order to separate themselves from drug traffickers and make sense of their actions.

Challenging perceptions about the drug trade, Dr Fleetwood’s presentation reminds us of the importance of the ‘micro’ in criminology, reducing large-scale phenomena like the international drug trade to a personal level. Using a sociological approach to drug trafficking and ‘getting to know them as living, breathing people,’ this research gives female drug mules’ narratives a space in this heavily masculinised trade, enabling a more comprehensive understanding of the wider international cocaine network.