Women are often overlooked or underestimated in the media coverage of organised crime and terrorism. At the OpenCrime conference organised by BuzzingCities Lab in Berlin in June 2019, investigative journalists, criminologists and other experts took a closer look, discovered challenges and developed proposals on how to improve reporting on the phenomenon.
The media often focus on unusual cases and stereotypes, thus only representing a fraction of reality.
Women who join cartels or terrorist organisations are often sexualised or mystified – for instance, the German "ISIS bride" Derya. Portrayals in the media of the crimes and character traits of criminal women are subject to different rules than the coverage of male offenders – partly because criminal women are an exception in statistical terms. According to the UN report "Global Study on Homicide", violence is male-dominated. In recent years, more than 90 percent of the global murder suspects were male.
The importance of women in criminal ecosystems is growing.
Women play an increasingly active role in gangs and cartels in countries such as Mexico or Brazil. In management or key positions, however, they are usually only promoted if they themselves stem from a criminal family, if their husbands are in prison or were murdered in a drug war.
While media coverage often focuses on narco starlets such as the drug queen Sandra Ávila Beltrán or Emma Coronel – the wife of the imprisoned Sinaloa drug boss Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán – the reality of most women who work for gangs and cartels is precarious. In most cases women with little education and low income enter drug smuggling in order to escape poverty. The risk of being arrested while smuggling is high. Women are still less recognised in criminal organisations than men, are paid less, and the majority take on riskier jobs.
Follow the money: The bank accounts and identities of women are often the backbone of criminal organisations.
Families are an important part of the criminal ecosystem. In the Italian mafia, unlawfully acquired assets are increasingly parked in women’s accounts – they are less conspicuous, have no criminal record. The criminal origin of the money can thus be better concealed.
According to the journalist network Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI), mafiosi in Italy register their assets with their wives and sisters to protect accounts and real estate from the authorities. Research from the Transcrime Research Center reveals that one third of all mafia assets in Italy are owned by women.
Family pressure: The social context has to be taken into account.
When reporting on the role of women in crime and radicalisation, the family context must be considered. If, for example, a woman is imprisoned, this also affects the children. The recruitment of women was also part of the strategy of the ISIS. More than 1000 German Islamists have travelled to ISIS war zones in recent years. About 50 German women and 62 children who were detained or are in refugee camps in Iraq or Syria have the right – as German citizens – to return.
The sentencing of women for supporting ISIS is often a grey area. An ISIS returnee was recently convicted by the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court for disseminating ISIS propaganda. However, the kind of crimes women can be accused of if they, for example, follow their husbands to ISIS dominated areas or warzones is controversial. Family can also become a turning point for criminal or terrorist careers and should play a role in deradicalisation strategies.
Invisible inmates: Women’s prisons must become more transparent.
As the majority of prisoners are male, prisons are too rarely geared to the special needs of women. According to the Federal Statistical Office, fewer than 3000 of a total of 60,000 prisoners and preventive detainees were women in 2018. Future research could explore, for example, how detention affects the relationship between mothers and children, the extent of sexual abuse in women’s prisons, or how sexual hygiene works in the prison context. The voices of inmates must also be heard more.
New technologies help to illustrate events and biographies that are difficult to visualise.
Reporting crimes is not so easy. If the crimes were committed years ago, those involved may have died already. When it comes to organised crime, gangs, cartels and the mafia, research is not without its dangers for journalists. Access to crime scenes, witnesses or ex-criminals is often blocked or controlled by active members.
New technologies and forms of storytelling can help not only to dive into the past, but also to make those prone to take revenge a part of history. In the documentary "Se potessi tornare. Donne in fuga dal crimine" (If I could return. Women on the run) by the IRPI, for example, a mafia widow in a witness protection programme uses a virtual reality headset to virtually visit places from her past. On the one hand, the viewer can walk through the places, on the other hand, he experiences the reactions and emotions of the escapee.
Examine digital weapons: Digital violence is also a form of violence.
Digital violence frequently affects women, but it still receives too little attention. There are numerous individual case anecdotes, but no representative studies on the topic yet. The phenomenon includes various forms of attacks with digital means such as smartphones or the internet aimed at defamation, social isolation or the coercion or blackmail of a victim. In the area of domestic violence, perpetrators use tools such as spyware to gain control over communications and track the victim’s whereabouts, thus aiding physical violence and crimes.
The OpenCrime conference took place with our partner the Bosch Alumni Network.
Check out Julia's and Sonja's Twitter Account.
Julia Jaroschewski is a reporter and founder of Buzzing Cities Lab, a think tank focusing on digital technology and security in informal settlements such as the Favelas in Rio. She works for Die WELT, Spiegel Online, fluter and WIRED, covering mainly foreign politics, organised crime, the war on drugs and security policy. She studied in Portugal, has an MA in political sciences from Berlin and has worked for the UN in New York and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Mozambique.
Julia has attended the Axel Springer Akademie and Columbia School of Journalism. As a fellow of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation and the Besser-Stiftung she reported from Brazil and South Africa, and from Mozambique as a scholar working for Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung. In 2016 she was part of the international journalism programme for South America, working for the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. She has also spent three months in India as a Media Ambassador for the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
Sonja Peteranderl is an editor at Spiegel Online and co-founder of BuzzingCities Lab, a think tank focusing on digitalisation and security/crime in informal settlements. She covers global politics, tech trends, security, justice and organised crime/cyber crime for example the global war on drugs, predictive policing, the digital transformation of drug cartels in Mexico or the European arms trade.
She has previously worked as a senior editor at Wired Germany magazine, and as a freelance foreign correspondent for German media such as Spiegel Online, Wired, Zeit Online, Impulse magazine or Journalist magazine in several Latin American countries, the USA and China.
As a fellow of the American Council on Germany, she is currently investigating the influence and the challenges of algorithmic decision-making systems/predictive policing in the policing and security realm in Germany and the USA. She is also an alumna of the Robert Bosch foundation's “Media Ambassadors China – Germany” programme, Otto-Brenner-Stiftung/Netzwerk Recherche and the foreign journalism programme of the German National Academic Foundation/Besser Foundation and has received several grants for her international investigations.
Read more about Sonja in this blog post.