The Story Behind Her: Deborah Bonello Is Telling Untold Stories of Women Crime Bosses—”Las Patronas”

Women journalists have always been at the forefront of change—so as the U.S. faces compounding crises, it’s no surprise that women journalists are stepping up to bring truth to the public.

During Women’s History Month 2021, the International Women’s Media Foundation and Ms. began spotlighting women journalists who are making the news media stronger, more diverse and equitable. But their work didn’t end on March 31—and neither does ours. Change starts with recognizing the people behind the byline. All year, join us to learn The Story Behind Her.

This Month: Deborah Bonello

This month, meet Deborah Bonello, senior editor of Latin America at VICE World News. She’s created a new series, Las Patronas, that profiles the untold stories of women crime bosses in Latin America.

Deborah Bonello. (Courtesy)

I am a journalist, but I’m also...

a woman, a runner, reader and voracious eater and cook.

How do your identities shape your work? When did you intersections help you do your job better or help you approach work differently?

Being a woman has been fundamental to this work, because it gave me the lens to start asking different questions. Versions of the reality of women in the criminal underworld seemed far removed from the reality of many women in the world today, who are increasingly visible and powerful in legal industries.

Having worked in a male-dominated field myself—journalism that is focused on organized crime—I was fascinated by the reality of women in the drug trade in ways that might not have occurred to my male colleagues. My background as a runner and in other sports gave me the endurance I needed to start and continue to ask questions, win access, and so on: to keep going even when things became painful and even boring.

Your new series, Las Patronas, shares the stories of women crime bosses in Latin America. What made you want to tell this story? How did your perspective of these women change as you reported their stories?

I was in part perplexed, and in part annoyed, by the way that women were portrayed in the realm of organized crime coverage. Mostly it was as wives, girlfriends or victims, or as an aberration: a sexy ‘sicaria’ (the female version of the cartel’s name for killers-for-hire). Most of the women were conventionally attractive in some way; their tales bombastic. It seemed unbelievable to me that given women’s ascent in other professional forums in the world, that they wouldn’t be more present—at all levels—in the ranks of organized crime. I wanted to find out if my suspicions were right, and to learn more about how women climbed and survived male-dominated, violent organizations such as these. 

I fell for the stereotype that women in criminal organizations tend to be the good faces of those groups—kind of the PR side. But as I investigated and traveled and asked questions I realized that women were, in some cases, as formidable and violent as their male counterparts, sometimes even more so. I also understood how—much like many of the strong women around me—women had much more agency than the existing narratives gave them credit for. They weren’t being forced into this realm: They wanted the status, power and success that organized crime promises—they were ambitious, ruthless and had alot of endurance.

We know women face unique safety challenges in the field – reporting on such an intense topic, how did you keep yourself safe? What gaps do you still see in safety trainings for women journalists?

The VICE Security team and IWMF grant were fundamental in this respect. With the help of both, I was able to travel to remote zones dominated by cartels with the right security measures and technology to guide us all through. I had eyes on me the entire time during the trip, and the generous grant allowed me to invest more in security on the ground.

I do see gaps in safety training for female journalists: My feeling is we need to consider other reactions to violence and repression than submission. I think training women to better defend themselves in all realms can give them more confidence in dealing with certain situations in the field. I know this is a controversial position, and that the view is often that reactions other than submission can escalate matters, but my experience in the field suggests submission is not the only option.

I also have a mantra I never break: Never do an assignment you don’t realistically think you will survive. Basic common sense. No one wants to be THAT journalist.

How does your community lift you up? How do you uplift others in your community?

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by strong women and men, not just journalists, who understand and respect my work and are constantly encouraging me to move forward. In the past, observers have questioned my focus on organized crime—largely for safety reasons—but those who know me trust my decisions to tackle risk responsibly. They also know that my interest in this field feels so innate that there is little point in doing anything else but trying to encourage it.

As a mid-career journalist and senior editor, I do my best to meet, help and encourage journalists on their way up, and to get the best out of those who work with me.

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The International Women’s Media Foundation's mission is to unleash the potential of women journalists as champions of press freedom to transform the global news media.