By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 25, 2008
MEXICO CITY, Dec. 24 Mexicans awoke this holiday morn to see the reigning Miss Sinaloa 2008 on the front page of almost every newspaper in the country. But it wasn't the cheesecake photo of the beauty queen Laura Elena Zúñiga in a red bikini that was so startling on Christmas Eve. It was the photograph that ran beside it: Miss Sinaloa was busted.
Zúñiga was arrested with a group of seven suspected gunmen and cartel associates, who were riding in a couple of trucks that got stopped at a military checkpoint around midnight Monday just outside the colonial city of Guadalajara. The headline in El Universal almost translates itself: "Detienen a Miss Sinaloa y 7 narcos."
In the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Chevy pickup truck, soldiers found Miss Sinaloa and a cache of weapons, including AR-15 assault rifles, .38 specials, 9mm handguns, 633 cartridges, and $53,300 in cash, in U.S. dollar bills. Plus: 16 cellphones.
The news accounts, on television and in print, all featured images of Zúñiga in what is the classic Mexican perp pose. After her arrest, the 23-year-old former preschool teacher was paraded in front of cameras, then forced front and center before a table piled with guns and cash. And there Zúñiga stood, her head lowered in embarrassment or shame, in a pair of skinny jeans and a cardigan sweater, her wrists shackled in handcuffs, sandwiched between two tough-looking guys straight out of central casting.
The television news flashed back and forth between a beaming Miss Sinaloa clasping a bouquet of red roses and accepting her crown, and images of cartel violence, which has left more than 5,300 people dead this year. Zúñiga was born in Culiacan in Sinaloa on the west coast of Mexico, a drug-trafficking hot zone. When she won Miss Sinaloa in July, she gave an impassioned speech about how society should be appreciative of mothers. She was named queen at the Hispanoamerica beauty contest in May in Bolivia, and she placed third in another contest, which would allow her to compete for Miss International.
The newspapers had more details. Zúñiga was arrested with her boyfriend, Angel Orlando García, a top capo in the Juarez drug cartel, according to police. He is the brother of a former leader of the Juarez drug cartel, Ricardo García, known as "El Doctor," who was jailed in 2005.
The Jalisco state police director, Francisco Alejandro Solorio, said Zúñiga told authorities that she and her companions were en route to Bolivia and Colombia "to go shopping."
The newspaper Reforma tracked down her mother, who said she was surprised by her daughter's detention and didn't know what she was doing riding around in trucks with guns. "I pray to God that everything ends well," she said, describing her daughter as "a woman who has dedicated her entire life to fighting and getting ahead."
In an earlier interview, Miss Sinaloa said she struggled with stage fright and speaking well, especially in the intense atmosphere of a beauty pageant.
On the front page, Reforma also included a short news item next to its Miss Sinaloa piece. It reported that the former girlfriend of the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, was found dead stuffed in a car trunk. Her assailants had carved the letter "Z" on her body.