CULIACAN, Mexico (AP) — A Mexican beauty queen killed over the weekend in a shootout between suspected drug traffickers and soldiers likely was being used as a human shield, a federal official said Tuesday.
Maria Susana Flores Gamez, crowned 2012 Woman of Sinaloa in February, came out of the car first with a gun in her hands during the confrontation, with the other gunmen hiding behind her, according to the official from the attorney general's office.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. The official said he read the military report of Saturday's shootout in Flores Gamez's hometown of Guamuchil in western Sinaloa state, home to Mexico's most powerful cartel of the same name. The attorney general's investigators are still trying to determine if the 20-year-old fired the gun she was holding.
The report said she went down in a hail of gunfire. She was found dead near an assault rifle along with two others. "They used the woman as a human shield," the official said. The slender, 5-foot-7-inch brunette had competed with seven other contestants for the more prestigious state beauty contest, Miss Sinaloa, but didn't win. Miss Sinaloa state winners compete for the Miss Mexico title, whose holder represents the country in the international Miss Universe pageant.
Mexico's Ximena Navarrete was crowned Miss Universe in 2010. Local media outlets continue to misidentify Flores Gamez on Tuesday as Miss Sinaloa. The organizers of the Miss Sinaloa pageant issued a statement on the pageant's Facebook page, seeking to make clear Flores Gamez was not their queen.
The misidentification "damages the image and tranquility of our queens, their families and friends," the statement said. Neither the state nor national pageants responded to requests for comment on Flores Gamez's death.
It was at least the fourth documented case of a beauty queen or pageant contestant becoming involved with Mexican drug traffickers, the theme of the critically acclaimed 2011 movie "Miss Bala," or "Miss Bullet," Mexico's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of Academy Awards.
The film tells the story of a young woman competing for Miss Baja California who becomes an unwilling participant in a drug-running ring, finally getting arrested for deeds she was forced into performing.
In real life, top Sinaloa cartel drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman married local beauty queen Emma Coronel, who later crossed into the United States to give birth to twin girls in 2011. In 2008, former Miss Sinaloa Laura Zuniga was stripped of her crown in the Hispanoamerican Queen pageant after she was detained that year on suspicion of drug and weapons violations. She was later released without charges.
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.
"A lot of young women are attracted by the false riches of the drug gangs. They offer the fantasy of a life of riches without much work," said Judith del Rincon, a women's rights activist and former Sinaloa legislator. "A lot of beauty queens wind up as girlfriends of some narco."
Del Rincon added that the involvement of drug lords with beauty queens dates back at least to the heyday of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug gang in the 1990s. Sinaloa state prosecutor Marco Antonio Higuera said Flores Gamez was traveling in one of several vehicles that engaged soldiers in an hours-long chase and gun battle. He said two other members of the drug gang 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. Some men escaped, and the gun battle continued along a nearby roadway, where the gang's vehicles were eventually stopped. Six vehicles, drugs and weapons were seized following the confrontation.
Higuera said Flores Gamez's body has been turned over to relatives for burial.
Associated Press Writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.