ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON
GUAMUCHIL, Mexico (AP) -- Maria Susana Flores walked up to the microphone in a sequined black dress, showing the judges of the Sinaloa Woman beauty contest the smile and the strut she had perfected in pageants since preschool.
"Women, no matter how hard you try, you cannot change your past," the 20-year-old contestant said in a sweet, high voice. "But you can choose today what your future will be."
Drums rolled as Susana left center stage and turned to pose, placing manicured hands on her tiny waist and shaking back long brown hair. The crowd whooped. The judges were dazzled by the dark-eyed beauty with the Penelope Cruz lips, and before long she was bowing her head to accept the 2012 crown.
If you had asked her that February weekend, the new Sinaloa Woman would have said the future she'd chosen was clear: a calendar of pageants as far away as China, a chance to compete for the coveted Miss Sinaloa title, and then, Miss Mexico.
But Susy, as she was called, had chosen another path at the crossroads of power and beauty in a state known for drug lords and pageant queens. It was a fateful choice.
In November, Susy died like a mobster's moll, carrying an AK-47 assault rifle into a spray of gunfire from Mexican soldiers. Hit below the neck, she dropped into a dirt field and bled to death, her carotid artery severed.
"I swear I would have never imagined, ever in my life, that my daughter would die like this," said Maria del Carmen Gamez, Susy's devoted manager and biggest fan.
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Sinaloa, with its acres of corn and tomatoes, is the birthplace of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel who is one of the wealthiest men in Mexico and one of the most-wanted men in the world. A long narrow state, it hugs the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean, though Mazatlan, its most popular resort town, has lost its luster under the violence of the drug wars.
The cartel's internal battles over the international cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana trade has given the state one of Mexico's highest murder rates, while the drug business has provided its riches. Thousands of Sinaloans are drawn wittingly or unwittingly into the narco economy, with vague titles such as "farmer" or "businessman" often serving as code for the more pedestrian jobs in the drug trade. Thousands more, from accountants to bar owners to musicians, cannot escape the reach of the drug cartels.
The settling of accounts among gangsters is as common here as car crashes, and neighborhoods are dotted with monuments to slain young men. The main cemetery in the state capital of Culiacan is a glittering city of mausoleums with towering cupolas, spiral staircases and Juliet balconies.
The city is peppered with shopping malls of shuttered stores and empty restaurants, known as "narco plazas" because they are little more than fronts for money laundering. On the outskirts of the city, meanwhile, motels boast Vegas-like replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
Across this foreboding landscape bloom the beauty queens. The Miss Mexico title has been won seven times by the tall fine-featured women of Sinaloa. And beauty queens and drug lords have been drawn to each other for as long as the illegal narcotics trade has flourished in Sinaloa.
"Do you want beauty queens who are not involved in the state's dominant industry? Look for them in heaven," said Nery Cordova, a local university professor and author of "Narcoculture in Sinaloa."
El Chapo married a beauty queen -- his latest wife.
Miss Sinaloa 2008 was forced to give up her crown after soldiers caught her and her boyfriend, an alleged cartel leader, with an arsenal of guns and wads of cash in a tale that inspired the acclaimed 2011 Mexican film, "Miss Bala" -- Miss Bullet.
And Susy too, fell for a narco whose violence was so legendary his name is featured in "narco corridos," the brass band songs devoted to a culture that glorifies drug traffickers and their bloody exploits.
"People know I hardly forgive,' one of the songs says. "Sometimes I am bloodthirsty. I tear them to pieces. I like doing things my way."
Gamez was enthralled with beauty contests long before the birth of her first daughter, Susy. She vividly remembered the day a classmate, Miss Mexico 1985, returned triumphant to their native town of Guamuchil to a lavish reception of mariachis, bands and parades.