The cocaine market presents a clear threat at global level. Well-defined locations of production in South America and large consumer markets in the Americas and Europe lead to trafficking routes from a circumscribed origin to specific, even if far-flung, destinations. While some parts of the world play a crucial role as transit regions, the routes, modalities and networks employed by criminal actors continue to evolve, diversify and become more efficient. The increasingly globalized, interconnected, digitalized and technologically sophisticated nature of society, as well as a growing affluent demographic in some regions where cocaine use has traditionally been low, can potentially catalyse and accelerate the dynamism and expansion of the market.

The series Cocaine Insights, developed by UNODC in the framework of the CRIMJUST programme and in cooperation with partners and stakeholders at national, regional and international levels, delivers the latest knowledge and trends on issues related to cocaine markets in an accessible and informative format.

Key findings

Women fulfil a wide range of roles at all stages of the cocaine supply chain

At the production stage, the most common roles for women are those of coca growers and coca pickers. In international trafficking, women usually participate as “drug mules”. And in national-level drug distribution, women are often involved in smuggling drugs into prisons and in street-level drug dealing. At each stage, roles carried out by women can vary from supporting to managerial, with low-ranking positions prevailing.

Some roles are more specific to women, while others are performed by both women and men

In most cocaine-related activities, women participate together with men. The exception is smuggling of drugs into prison, which is carried out almost exclusively by women. In the case of women who smuggle small quantities of cocaine internationally and at the national level, gender does not seem to be a decisive factor for their recruitment. Instead, gender matters in choosing a method of concealment and in adopting traditional gendered behaviours to avoid attention of law enforcement.

Women can play a prominent role in the coca leaf economy

In parts of Bolivia (Plurinational State of), women are primary actors in the commercialization of coca leaf and may occupy prominent positions such as coca leaf merchants or even financiers of the processing chain. These women occupy a mid-level position in the production ladder and some may have relatively high financial means.

For most women, the decision to become involved in drug-related activities is shaped by limited choices, even though it is often voluntary

The available evidence indicates that only a minority of women are coerced or deceived into cocaine trafficking. However, women’s decisions to become involved are often shaped by their responses to socio-economic conditions. In Latin American and the Caribbean region, for example, women are less likely than men to participate in the labour market (53 per cent women compared to 77 per cent of men); more likely to work without pay or for lower pay; and on average work more hours than men. Those who have no ability to advance economically are sometimes “pushed” into the cocaine trade by the perceived lack of alternatives.

Reasons for female involvement in cocaine trafficking vary across roles

While female participation in any role can be driven by economic needs, some roles may be driven by other driving factors. Women who smuggle cocaine into prison are often led into it by a male inmate with whom they have romantic or familial ties. For female street-level drug dealers, extreme poverty and the need to provide for the family is often the main push factor to sell drugs. Conversely, a minority of international smugglers (“drug mules”) come from a higher socio-economic background and opt to smuggle cocaine to obtain additional economic benefits or elevate their social status. Women in leadership positions are likely to pursue a criminal career for the sake of achieving a sense of power and autonomy from men.

Initial involvement in international smuggling of cocaine is often voluntary but it quickly becomes irreversible

Most women are involved in the low levels of the supply chain without fully realising the potential risks, such as a high probability of arrest, harsh penalties, or health risks in the case of drug swallowers. Once they start to smuggle drugs and become “drug mules”, they are typically not allowed to detract.

Women are just as involved as men in smuggling cocaine inside their bodies

While “body packers” used to be predominantly young men, tightening of airport security and border checks worldwide have led to all demographic groups, including children and pregnant women, becoming involved in body packing. Nowadays, women appear to be involved at the same scale as men, although this varies depending on the geographic region and the drug type smuggled.

There appear to be regional preferences for male and female involvement in international cocaine smuggling

Some countries along cocaine routes appear to be the origin for predominantly male “drug mules”, while others may be the origin for higher shares of female “drug mules”. Still, for the majority of nationalities, both genders are represented, with men prevailing in absolute numbers over women.

Working conditions of women compared to men remains an open question

Generally, there seems to be no difference between males and females in the income earned by coca growers and “drug mules”. However, data are scarce. Moreover, more research is needed to better understand the working conditions of women in the cocaine economy and to establish if women are treated differently from men by drug trafficking organizations.

Involvement in the cocaine supply chain creates a mixed impact on women

For women involved in the lower stages of the cocaine supply chain, income from illicit activities provides shortterm benefits. Coca growing activities may become the source of a relatively stable income and contribute to women’s financial independence. However, they do not translate into sustainable livelihoods. Similarly, most of the women who engage in small-scale trafficking or retail of cocaine remain poor. Involvement in the cocaine economy also leads to their greater exposure to a violent environment, threats and stigmatization. And it can lead to incarceration, which has a particular impact on women and their families, especially in the case of foreign nationals who suffer the effects of being incarcerated away from home and who also often encounter additional challenges in the pre-trial stages.