CULIACAN, Mexico — A 20-year-old state beauty queen died in a gun battle between soldiers and the alleged gang of drug traffickers she was traveling with in a scene befitting the hit movie "Miss Bala," or "Miss Bullet," about Mexico's not uncommon ties between narcos and beautiful pageant contestants.
The body of Maria Susana Flores Gamez was found Saturday lying near an assault rifle on a rural road in a mountainous area of the drug-plagued state of Sinaloa, the chief state prosecutor said Monday. It was unclear if she had used the weapon.
"She was with the gang of criminals, but we cannot say whether she participated in the shootout," state prosecutor Marco Antonio Higuera said. "That's what we're going to have to investigate."
The slender, 5-foot-7-inch brunette was voted the 2012 Woman of Sinaloa in a beauty pageant in February. In June, the model competed with other seven contestants for the more prestigious state beauty contest, Our Beauty Sinaloa, but didn't win. The Our Beauty state winners compete for the Miss Mexico title, whose holder represents the country in the international Miss Universe.
Higuera said Flores Gamez was traveling in one of the vehicles that engaged soldiers in an hours-long chase and running gun battle on Saturday near her native city of Guamuchil in the state of Sinaloa, home to Mexico's most powerful drug cartel. Higuera said two other members of the drug gang were killed and four were detained.
The shootout began when the gunmen opened fire on a Mexican army patrol. Soldiers gave chase and cornered the gang at a safe house in the town of Mocorito. The other men escaped, and the gunbattle continued along a nearby roadway, where the gang's vehicles were eventually stopped. Six vehicles, drugs and weapons were seized following the confrontation.
It was at least the third instance in which a beauty queen or pageant contestants have been linked to Mexico's violent drug gangs, a theme so common it was the subject of a critically acclaimed 2011 movie.
In "Miss Bala," Mexico's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of this year's Academy Awards, a young woman competing for Miss Baja California becomes an unwilling participant in a drug-running ring, finally getting arrested for deeds she was forced into performing.
In real life, former Miss Sinaloa Laura Zuniga was stripped of her 2008 crown in the Hispanoamerican Queen pageant after she was detained on suspicion of drug and weapons violations. She was later released without charges.
Zuniga was detained in western Mexico in late 2010 along with seven men, some of them suspected drug traffickers. Authorities found a large stash of weapons, ammunition and $53,300 with them inside a vehicle.
In 2011, a Colombian former model and pageant contestant was detained along with Jose Jorge Balderas, an accused drug trafficker and suspect in the 2010 bar shooting of Salvador Cabanas, a former star for Paraguay's national football team and Mexico's Club America. She was also later released.
Higuera said Flores Gamez's body has been turned over to relatives for burial.
"This is a sad situation," Higuera told a local radio station. She had been enrolled in media courses at a local university, and had been modeling and in pageants since at least 2009.
Javier Valdez, the author of a 2009 book about narco ties to beauty pageants entitled "Miss Narco," said "this is a recurrent story."
"There is a relationship, sometimes pleasant and sometimes tragic, between organized crime and the beauty queens, the pageants, the beauty industry itself," Valdez said.
"It is a question of privilege, power, money, but also a question of need," said Valdez. "For a lot of these young women, it is easy to get involved with organized crime, in a country that doesn't offer many opportunities for young people."
Sometimes drug traffickers seek out beauty queens, but sometimes the models themselves look for narco boyfriends, Valdez said.
"I once wrote about a girl I knew of who was desperate to get a narco boyfriend," he said. "She practically took out a classified ad saying `Looking for a Narco'."
The stories seldom end well. In the best of cases, a beautiful woman with a tear-stained face is marched before the press in handcuffs. In the worst of cases, they simply disappear.
"They are disposable objects, the lowest link in the chain of criminal organizations, the young men recruited as gunmen and the pretty young women who are tossed away in two or three years, or are turned into police or killed," Valdez said.
Associated Press Writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report
The Zetas are thought to have become the <a href="http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2012/01/201212645739134301.html" target="_hplink">largest cartel</a> in Mexico recently, <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-16712239" target="_hplink">operating</a> in over half the country's states. <b>Leader:</b> The notoriously brutal gangster <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/23/miguel-angel-trevino-zetas_n_1826236.html" target="_hplink">Miguel Angel Trevino Morales</a> (alias "Z-40") is believed to be the new leader of the Zetas drug cartel following a showdown with Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano. Trevino is infamous for human "cookouts" in which he stuffs people in oil drums and lights them on fire. "If you get called to a meeting with him, you're not going to come out of that meeting," a U.S. official <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/23/miguel-angel-trevino-zetas_n_1826236.html" target="_hplink">said of Trevino</a>. <strong>Territory:</strong> The Zetas control a swath of territory on Mexico's east coast extending along the Gulf of Mexico. <strong>Rivals:</strong> The Zetas are bitter rivals with the Sinaloa Cartel. In turn, the group is allied with the Beltran Leyva Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel. <strong>Notable incidents:</strong> In August 2011, gunmen <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/25/casino-royale-attack-leav_n_937413.html" target="_hplink">stormed the Casino Royale</a> in Monterrey and lit it on fire, killing dozens. In February 2012, 30 prisoners linked to the Zetas <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-17135362" target="_hplink">broke free</a> from Apodaca jail during a riot. 44 inmates from the rival Gulf Cartel were killed. In May 2012, the Zetas cartel allegedly was involved in <a href="http://edition.cnn.com/2012/05/13/world/americas/mexico-remains/index.html" target="_hplink">dumping 49 decapitated bodies</a> on a busy highway near Monterrey. <em>Photo: Army soldiers flank Daniel Ramirez, alias "El Loco," during his presentation to the media in Mexico City, Monday, May 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)</em>
Mexico's second major cartel reportedly <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/magazine/how-a-mexican-drug-cartel-makes-its-billions.html?pagewanted=all" target="_hplink">operates</a> in over a dozen countries, including trafficking cocaine and other drugs to the United States. <strong>Leader:</strong> Mexico's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/07/joaquin-el-chapo-guzman-mexicos-most-wanted_n_1751671.html" target="_hplink">most-wanted drug lord</a>, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, remains at large after he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/07/joaquin-el-chapo-guzman-mexicos-most-wanted_n_1751671.html" target="_hplink">escaped from prison</a> by hiding in a laundry truck in 2001. In 2012, Guzman <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/erincarlyle/2012/03/13/billionaire-druglords-el-chapo-guzman-pablo-escobar-the-ochoa-brothers/" target="_hplink">appeared</a> on <em>Forbes</em>' list of billionaires for the fourth year in a row. <strong>Territory:</strong> The Sinaloa Cartel operates in northwestern Mexico (<a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/sinaloa-cartel/item/192-sinaloa-cartel" target="_hplink">map</a>). <strong>Rivals:</strong> Arch-nemesis of Los Zetas, the Sinaloa cartel is <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/sinaloa-cartel/item/192-sinaloa-cartel" target="_hplink">allied</a> with the Gulf cartel and the Familia Michoacana. <strong>Notable Incidents:</strong> A 755-foot <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/12/nation/la-na-nn-drug-tunnel-details-20120712" target="_hplink">smuggling tunnel</a> running under a U.S. border fence was suspected to be operated by the Sinaloa cartel. The Sinaloa cartel may have been responsible for massacres in the border city of <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/05/bodies-bridge-23-mexico-drug" target="_hplink">Nuevo Laredo in May 2012</a>. The bodies of 23 people <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/05/bodies-bridge-23-mexico-drug" target="_hplink">were found</a> decapitated or hanging from a bridge, followed hours later by the discovery of 14 human heads in coolers near city hall. <em>Photo: In this June 10, 1993, file photo, Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo" Guzman, is shown to the press after his arrest at the high security prison of Almoloya de Juarez on the outskirts of Mexico City. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)</em>
One of the oldest cartels, the Gulf Cartel recently has lost influence, but is <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/gulf-cartel" target="_hplink">backed up</a> by the Sinaloa cartel. <strong>Leader:</strong> Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss." The U.S. has a <a href="http://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/rewards/115354.htm" target="_hplink">$5 million bounty</a> on his head. Costilla Sanchez once allegedly held FBI and DEA agents at gunpoint with AK-47s and <a href="http://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/rewards/115354.htm" target="_hplink">threatened</a> to kill them. <strong>Territory:</strong> The cartel operates out of the state of Tamaulipas, with other bases in Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa, <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/gulf-cartel/item/90-gulf-cartel" target="_hplink">according to InsightCrime</a>. <strong>Rivals:</strong> The Gulf Cartel is allied with Sinaloa and enemies of Los Zetas. <strong>Notable Incident:</strong> In June, footage purporting to show masked members of the Gulf Cartel beheading Zetas members <a href="http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-06-29/news/32475737_1_gulf-cartel-drug-cartel-leader-zetas-cartel" target="_hplink">surfaced online</a>. <em>Photo: From left: Andrea Escamilla Juarez ("La Negra," 21), Rene Cortez Zapata ("El Nicanor," 45), Nestor Hugo Del Angel Ferretis ("El Tango," 29), Jose De Jesus Mosqueda Mora ("El Chucho," 41), Jorge Fernando Larios Nossiff ("El Camaron", 57), and Ricardo Abraham Velazquez Del Castillo ("El Ricardillo, 24), all alleged members of a cell belonging to the Gulf Cartel criminal organization, are shown to the press by federal police in Mexico City, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/German Garcia)</em>
The Juarez Cartel reportedly <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/juarez-cartel" target="_hplink">smuggles</a> tons of narcotics into the U.S., using local gangs to <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/juarez-cartel" target="_hplink">act as enforcers</a>. <strong>Leader:</strong> Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, aka "<a href="http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2019221_2019202_2019187,00.html" target="_hplink">The Viceroy</a>," has a $5 million bounty on his head from the U.S. government. <strong>Territory:</strong> Based in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. <strong>Notable incidents:</strong> In July 2011, Antonio Acosta Hernandez ("El Diego") told police he had <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2011-07-31/world/mexico.drug.arrest_1_lesley-enriquez-consulate-employee-drug-gang?_s=PM:WORLD" target="_hplink">ordered the killings</a> of 1,500 people. In 2010, a report suggested that an associate group of the Juarez Cartel was <a href="http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2010/08/juarez-cartel-trains-beautiful-women-as.html" target="_hplink">training beautiful</a>, young women as assassins. <strong>Rivals:</strong> Sinaloa cartel. <em>Photo: Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, 33, is presented to the media by federal police officers in Mexico City, Sunday July 31, 2011. According to federal officials, Acosta, nicknamed "El Diego," is a key drug cartel figure, who acknowledged ordering 1,500 killings. Authorities identified Acosta as head of La Linea, a gang of hit men and corrupt police officers who act as enforcers for the Juarez Cartel. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)</em>
The Tijuana Cartel, aka the Arellano Felix Organization, <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/tijuana-cartel/item/193-tijuana-cartel" target="_hplink">operates</a> in the strategically important town of Tijuana, bordering San Diego, California. The cartel was depicted in the film '<a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181865/" target="_hplink">Traffic</a>' (2000). The cartel has been <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/tijuana-cartel" target="_hplink">weakened</a> by infighting. <strong>Leader:</strong> Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias "El Ingeniero." (The "Engineer.") <strong>Territory:</strong> Baja California <strong>Notable Incident:</strong> The cartel allegedly dissolved bodies using chemicals or burned them in the desert to <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57408368/tijuana-cartel-leader-arellano-felix-gets-25-yrs/" target="_hplink">cover their tracks</a>. <em>Photo: Seized drugs and packages of marijuana and crystal meth are displayed during a presentation to the press in Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, March 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)</em>
The Knights Templar are a bizarre, cult-like group. <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/26/mexican-corpses-acapulco" target="_hplink">The Guardian writes</a>: "Propaganda from the Knights Templar blends a mix of Michoacan regionalism, Christianity and revolutionary slogans." The Knights Templar are a major trafficker of methamphetamine. <strong>Leader:</strong> Servando Gómez Martínez, alias "La Tuta," <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/insight-latest-news/item/3085-knights-templar-leader-appears-in-video" target="_hplink">denied</a> in a filmed address that the Knights Templar are a cartel. Gómez Martínez is also called "El Profe" ("The Professor"), and <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/component/k2/item/319-familia-michoacana-leader-reportedly-employed-as-teacher" target="_hplink">InSight reports</a> that Gómez Martínez was still a publicly-employed teacher as of 2010. <strong>Notable Incident:</strong> The group recently was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/28/sabritas-firebombing-attack_n_1551355.html" target="_hplink">blamed</a> for coordinated firebombings of a PepsiCo subsiadary. It was a Mexican drug cartel's first attack on a transnational company. <strong>Rivals:</strong> Los Zetas. <em>Photo: Juan Gabriel Orozco Favela, alias "El Gasca," an alleged member of the Knights Templar drug cartel, is escorted by Mexican Army soldiers as he is presented to the media in Mexico City, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)</em>
Beltran Leyva (Disbanded)
The Beltran Leyva largely disbanded following a power struggle after the death of its leader, Arturo Beltrán Leyva. <strong>Leader:</strong> Héctor Beltrán Leyva, alias "El Ingeniero," or "El H," is wanted for up to <a href="http://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/rewards/133311.htm" target="_hplink">$5 million</a> in the U.S. He is the brother of former cartel leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva. <strong>Territory:</strong> Northern Sinaloa. <strong>Rivals:</strong> Allied with Los Zetas after <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/08/28/f-mexico-drug-cartels.html" target="_hplink">splitting from Sinaloa</a> in 2008. <strong>Notable incident:</strong> Former cartel chief Arturo Beltrán Leyva died in a <a href="http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/laplaza/2009/12/mexico-drug-lord-arturo-beltran-leyva-mexican-navy-marines-raid-felipe-calderon-drug-war.html" target="_hplink">shootout</a> involving 200 Mexican marines in late 2009. <em>Photo: In this photo released by Mexico's Navy, Navy marines arrest alleged drug kingpin Sergio Villarreal Barragan, alias "El Grande," center, in Puebla, Mexico, Sunday Sept. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Mexican Navy)</em>
La Familia Michoacana (Extinct)
La Familia Michoacana, a pseudo-religious gang, has been largely <a href="http://www.excelsior.com.mx/index.php?m=nota&id_nota=779205&rss=1" target="_hplink">disbanded</a>. <strong>Leader: </strong> Nazario Moreno González, alias "El Más Loco" ("The Craziest One"), died in December 2010. <em>Photo: Martin Rosales Magana, aka "El Terry" and alleged leader of the Mexican La Familia drug cartel, is escorted by police officers during his presentation to the media in Mexico City, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. Authorities allege Rosales is one of the last major leaders of the La Familia cartel. (AP Photo/Leonardo Casas)</em>