THE Queen of the South is glamorous Teresa Mendoza, who rises from poverty to run a multimillion-euro drug empire from Marbella.
The Queen of Ronda is 39-year-old Maria del Mar Mellado, who rises from boredom to run an international drug ring in the sleepy Cadiz and Malaga sierras.
Both stories involve cartels, cocaine, passion, jail time, plastic surgery and women breaking through the glass ceiling in the male dominated world of international crime.
But whereas the Queen of the South is the fictional protagonist of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s 2002 novel (La Reina del Sur) – inspiration for a Telemundo series in 2011, and later the eponymous Netflix hit – the self-styled Queen of Ronda is real.
That Cuevas del Becerro (pop. 1600) is a slow kind of place will be obvious to anyone who has ever driven through it: speed cameras are there to catch criminals who creep above 50 km/hr. Too slow for Mellado, who was born there to a construction worker and housewife in 1983.
She livened things up by dealing drugs but made rookie errors. At the age of 25, she was serving her first jail sentence after being arrested in Puerto Serrano, Cadiz with 400 grams of cocaine.
Her time in jail proved educational. She picked up tips and contacts and on her release tried again, this time rocketing up through the ranks, to become head of her own network, trafficking drugs from the Dominican Republic to southern Spain for large amounts of money.
It’s unlikely she read Perez-Reverte’s novel on her prison bunk, but she was a fan of the series and tribute song, the narcocorrido by Los Tigres del Norte, and she sought to emulate the glamorous Teresa in looks and deeds – and name: Queen of Ronda.
Friends and neighbours must have marvelled at how well the ex-con (now a single mother) was doing. Theoretically, an unemployed beautician, with an inoperative clothing company registered to her name in Pruna, Mellado had a luxurious house in the El Olivar urbanisation of Arriate (outside Ronda), and frequently rented additional properties – in Ronda itself, as well as Estepona and the exclusive La Zagaleta urbanization in Marbella.
She had a thing for buying cars. Before prison she’d splashed out on an Audi A6, a Hyundai Coupe, and a moped. Between 2011 and 2012, she added to her fleet, buying a Peugeot 607 and a Ford Focus for her mother (who couldn’t drive), and a Nissan Pathfinder, which she registered to her daughter’s father Juan Gabriel Gomez Diaz (licensed only to drive bikes). She bought guns, but just replica ones, and kept one in a drawer beside the bed.
She invested in plenty of plastic surgery for cosmetic as well as practical reasons. The snaggle-toothed, excited woman shown playing in the sea in the photos she posted on Instagram during her first shopping trips in the Dominican Republic was soon replaced by something a little more dead-eyed.
Playing by the drug boss rulebook, she indulged in shows of public generosity, the most brazen of which took place in her home village on January 5, 2012. Mellado not only organized and funded the Three Kings Parade, she paid for toys for every child out of her hard-earned drug money, and even took part, dressed as a page and flanked by her drug-trafficking brother and partner playing two of the kings.
The 28-year-old Mellado must have been feeling very good about herself. Little did she know she had just 19 days of freedom left.
The Cadiz Guardia Civil had noted the increase in coke dealing activity in the sierras. They’d intercepted the delivery drivers, worked upwards, and were now following Mellado.
Operation Vuelo had been launched in mid-2011, the name a reference to her frequent trips to the Caribbean out of Madrid-Barajas Airport.
In fact Mellado had made at least 11 trips to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic since leaving prison and had spent a further €48,000 in cash on tickets for drug mules.
Her visits had been to establish contacts and source 95% pure cocaine. The risky, dirty business of trafficking the drugs into Spain she left to others.
She plucked the badly paid and unemployed out of a pool of willing volunteers and, in return for €500 and a week in Punta Cana, they swallowed the drugs and brought them back.
Her contacts taught the mules how to wrap the balls of cocaine so they were less likely to die, and coached them in how to act to avoid detection.
The drugs were adulterated and distributed to sellers in the network who ran the retail drug side of the business in the Sierra de Cadiz and the Serrania de Ronda, but also in Sevilla and Malaga.
The Guardia Civil watched Mellado – sometimes accompanied by her daughter – handing out packets of cocaine to sellers at various ventas.
Shortly after the 2012 cabalgata, Mellado went to Punta Cana herself, accompanied by her partner Adan Lara Quesada, and two mules – Manuel Garrido Velasco and Daniel Perez Badia. The drugs squad was there to meet her when she returned on January 24. One mule had been stuffed with 75 balls of cocaine valued at €44,000 and the other 50, valued at €32, 700.
Mellado was fined €280,000 and sentenced to 11 years, three months in prison, which she served in Cadiz.
Her travelling companions were each fined €150,000 and sentenced to six years. In total, 21 members of her ring were arrested, including her brother, Francisco, his wife Inmaculada, and her trusted lieutenant Juan Antonio Diaz Jimenez aka Popi, who were fined and sentenced to seven years.
As well as cocaine, the raids resulted in the seizure of cash, replica guns and nine vehicles.
Once again, jail was not the end of it, merely a learning curve which she took advantage of on her release.
Mellado hadn’t been home long when investigators began intercepting suitcases containing cocaine arriving from Colombia on flights into Madrid. When the couriers they arrested turned out to be residents of the Cadiz and Ronda mountains, with limited economic resources, they knew the so-called Queen of Ronda was at it again.
Last August, a joint operation was launched between Spain’s National Police and Colombia’s police narcotics division, DIRAN with the aim of identifying a courier and seeing where that person led them.
On August 17, agents from UDYCO (the Drugs and Organised Crime Unit) were watching arrivals from Colombia at Madrid airport for suspicious behaviour when they spotted a female passenger acting nervously at the security controls.
Access to shared intelligence immediately revealed she had a history of trafficking.
They followed her to a city centre hotel and watched as she was met by a man who quickly drove off.
An hour later, the woman emerged carrying the suitcase and took a taxi to a residential area where the agents saw the same man – this time waiting with a woman they instantly recognised as Mellado.
The three disappeared into an underground car park and were arrested as the suitcase was exchanged
It contained 11 kilos of cocaine; the money to pay for it – €23,500 – had been wrapped in plastic and hidden inside the dashboard.
So now Maria del Mar Mellado Blanco is back in jail. In the original novel, Teresa Mendoza, Queen of the South, ended up with a new face and a new life under the witness protection program, but the Queen of Ronda can expect to serve seven to nine years. A happy outcome for drug traffickers is just fiction after all.
Inside the head of a drugs queen
RENOWNED criminologist Ricardo Magaz who has followed Mellado’s career over the years says she is egocentric, and driven by the need ‘to show off her achievements so that people, especially her neighbours, recognise her social rise’, regardless of the fact it’s the result of drug trafficking.
He explained: “She is an uncultured person from a humble background, but, perhaps because of this, she showed from a very young age a lot of courage and desire to excel at all costs, to stand out, without moral restraint.
“Drug trafficking – small-scale at first – served her purposes. She liked that among her group they called her ‘la narco del pueblo’.
“Maria del Mar has a desperate need for public approval. With the vast profits from drug trafficking, she lived surrounded by tinsel, wanting to be admired. She emulated drug lords in the style of Pablo Escobar, El Chapo Guzman or, in Spain, the Galician Sito Miñanco.”
As for her ‘charity’ works, such as the Three Kings Parade, Magaz says she ‘longed in her heart to achieve two goals: to be a kind of ‘NGO’ for drug trafficking, although this seems crazy, and to shine as the new Queen of the South, in the manner of Teresa Mendoza’.
Prison is not the end, says the criminologist: “A real narco never retires, whether man or a woman, Spanish or foreign. From jail they can keep in touch with his gang on the street. A ‘narco queen’ like her dies with her heels on.
“It’s the old story, once again, of the recidivism of drug traffickers who poison a society, that live oblivious to the tragedy of thousands and thousands of lives destroyed by drug addiction.”