The world of drug trafficking is a murky one as highlighted by the story of Martha Lopez.
Drug traffickers showed up at Martha Lopez's home in Sinaloa state, at the heart of Mexico's drug industry, and said they knew she planned to visit her sick son in San Quintin, near the US border.
A man held a gun to the head of the almost 70-year-old Mexican as a woman strapped crystal meth around her waist before she was due to board the plane.
"I was really scared but I wanted to see my son. They said they would kill me if I reported them," said Lopez inside a shabby jail in Culiacan, capital of the northwestern Sinaloa state, where she has served three of a 10-year sentence for transporting drugs, after being stopped at the airport.
Women are increasingly visible and vulnerable as Mexico's drug gangs break up and grow, not only as "mules" transporting drugs either because they are threatened or want the cash, but also as money launderers, occasional assassins or victims of beheadings.
In a gritty take on the issue, "Miss Bala" or "Miss Bullet," Mexico's bid for the 2012 Oscars, tells the tale of a 23-year-old woman forcibly swept into a world of drug trafficking and violence after witnessing a massacre.
The movie -- inspired by a real-life beauty queen arrested in a drug trafficking scandal in 2008 -- shows a passive woman manipulated and violated by criminals and officials alike in a macho world.
It also highlights the increasing risks for many Mexicans in areas affected by drug-related violence, blamed for some 45,000 deaths since 2006.
While glamorous girlfriends or gang leaders steal the limelight in soap operas and drug ballads, many poor and uneducated women are often jailed for 10 years for carrying small amounts of drugs.
"They are crimes which are judged in a completely disproportionate way," said Elena Azaola, an investigator at Mexico's Center for Advanced Studies and Research in Social Anthropology.
"The criminal gangs hire women precisely because they're more vulnerable with less capacity to defend themselves."
Although only five percent of the prison population, female inmates have almost doubled in the past decade to 11,000, with around a third jailed for drug-related crimes, according to the Public Security Ministry.
Streets of luxury car showrooms hint at the massive wealth available to some in Culiacan, home to the Sinaloa Federation of fugitive billionaire drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
The state is renowned for beautiful women handpicked as girlfriends and wives by drug traffickers, standing out in their designer clothes, high heels and diamond-incrusted nails.
It has also produced top female drug operators, like Blanca "The Empress" Cazeres and Sandra Avila, known as "The Queen of the Pacific," both accused of working for the Sinaloa gang.
But most women remain anonymous, often getting involved in drug crime through their families, sometimes after the death of a partner.
"Those detained are the most abandoned, who don't have someone to defend them. But many women are partners of sellers or gunmen and know what their partner does. Sometimes they don't only know but are very active in it," said Teresa Guerra, a lawyer and member of a local women's collective.
Double walls topped with barbed wire surround Culiacan's jail, where a smell of sewage mixes with the warm breeze and small cells house 75 women, more than half jailed for drug-related crimes.
Traffickers offered Josefa Carreno 1,000 dollars to take metamphetamines by bus to the border, hidden in drinking yogurt bottles.
"They saw me in a moment of need. My children were really small," said the single mother of two. "I saw it was easy."
In a rare admission, Mercedes Rodriguez said adrenalin rather than a need for money led her to drive carloads of drugs up Mexico's Pacific coast.
"It was like the high from taking drugs," Rodriguez said.
Her youngest son stopped talking to her when she was jailed two years ago, she said, wiping a hand over her eyes.