Busted! Taking Down Miss Hispanic America

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Jose Mendez / Debate de Sinaloa / EPA

Laura Zuniga, as she won the beauty contest Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa in 2008

In October, Laura Zuniga, athletic and 5 feet 7 inches tall, posed sleekly for the paparazzi. She wore an alluring pink dress and, more importantly, the coveted crown of Miss Hispanic America. Just before Christmas, she again stood before a scrum of Mexican photographers, this time holding her head low and wearing a pair of handcuffs while police showed the 9-mm pistols, semiautomatic rifles and $53,000 in cash she was allegedly caught with. Her problems only deepened on Friday, when a judge ordered her and a man described as her boyfriend, along with six others found with the stash, to be detained for 40 days pending charges on racketeering, drug trafficking, guns and money laundering.

The arrest of the 23-year-old Zuniga — who was also the reigning beauty queen in her native state of Sinaloa — provided some variety in the news for a nation weary of piles of corpses and vicious firefights in its relentless drug war. Newspapers plastered their front pages with images of Zuniga in bikinis and high heels. All seemed to be competing for the wittiest headlines. "Miss Narco," blared the tabloid El Metro. "Miss Sinaloa and the Seven Narcos," said the normally high-brow El Universal. She was compared to the heroine of Queen of the South, a fictional work about a beautiful drug trafficker currently being made into a Hollywood movie with celebrated Latina actress Eva Mendes. (See pictures of the center of Mexico's drug-trafficking industry.)

But beneath the media frolics, the tale of the fallen beauty queen highlights the dark side of how sprawling crime syndicates have penetrated so many areas of Mexican life. With the cartels estimated to make $30 billion from smuggling narcotics, the U.S. Treasury has named dozens of Mexican companies, from dairy farms to clothing chains, as money launderers. In November, the owner of a third-division soccer club, the Mapaches of Michoacán state, was charged with drug trafficking. Crime kingpins are also alleged to finance popular Mexican singers, who croon about the gangsters' exploits.

Following Zuniga's detention, there were new calls to investigate modeling agencies and pageant organizers for dirty dollars. "We need to follow the money in these organizations to wherever it takes us," said Representative Francisco Rivera, president of the security committee in the lower house of Congress. "And if we find anything illicit, then punishments must be handed out." In reaction, several companies who had worked with Zuniga ran for cover, denying any knowledge of her actions. She was also stripped of her titles. "This organization separates itself from any activities, situations or personal relations that Laura Zuniga had outside of her participation in Miss Sinaloa," said a statement from Lupita Jones, director of Nuestra Belleza Mexico, which crowned Zuniga in her home state and planned to take her to various international contests in 2009. "We are a serious, respectable organization whose interest has been to heighten the beauty, capacity and values of the Mexican woman." (Read TIME's top 10 crime stories of 2008.)

It remains to be seen how deep the Sinaloan beauty queen was in the pockets of the drug capos. Soldiers made the bust in the western Mexican city of Guadalajara after a tip-off from an informant. They stopped Zuniga and the seven men as they cruised around town in a pair of bulky SUVs. Police allege the beauty queen's boyfriend, Orlando Garcia Urquiza, who was in the cruiser with her, is a high-ranking member of the Juarez Cartel, which controls smuggling into west Texas. Garcia's brother Ricardo was identified as the cartel's operational commander when he was arrested three years ago. Police also allege that Zuniga made trips to Colombia this year that were unconnected to her work as a model. The beauty queen's father denied that his daughter was involved in any illegal activity, telling local reporters in Sinaloa that she had been going to a Christmas party and knew nothing of her boyfriend's connections.

Sinaloa is home to some of Mexico's most powerful crime families. A "narco culture" of bulletproof trucks, lavish clothes and gold-plated guns dominates its streets. In this environment, the girlfriends of gangsters have become a subculture — buchonas — identified by diamond-studded finger bling, fake breasts and expensive dresses by foreign designers. "What a shame that there are ladies who get dazzled by the false shine of that money, who only aspire to be the girlfriends or loved ones of these vulgar thugs," wrote a Sinaloan resident identified as Gonzo on a Web discussion of Zuniga's arrest by the state's Noroeste newspaper. "These guys have taken a promising future and thrown it into the garbage."

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