GUAMUCHIL, Mexico - 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.
She chose another path
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.
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 have 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 common here, 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.
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.
First pageant at 4
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.
Susy was only 4 when her mother signed her up for a pageant she had organized herself. The child won and was crowned "Queen of the Red Cross."
It was an exciting moment in a young life soon marred by violence. Two years later, Susy's father was killed when his car was sprayed with bullets - not an uncommon occurrence in Sinaloa. He was 35.
Gamez still won't talk about that day in 1998, but according to newspaper accounts, Mario Flores was driving, his wife by his side, when a car approached them and a man opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol. Flores, hit in both hands, tried to speed away but crashed the truck into a house. His head was crushed when the pickup flipped. Though the truck was riddled with bullets, Gamez survived.
Like so many crimes in a state, this one was never solved. What happened? No one knows. What did he do for a living? "He was a farmer," his wife said.
"A known businessman," said the newspaper.
Flores left a life insurance policy, six homes in the names of his three children and a venue for party rentals - more than enough to provide for the traumatized family, and for Susy's pageant career.
By age 10, Susy was a true competitor, winning the local "Miss Fantasy and Talent" pageant dressed as an angel and reciting a poem about her father, whom she called "an extraordinary man."
The only time Susy really lit up was on stage. Waving from floats as Spring Queen, Homecoming Queen and Model of the Year, Susy, at 5-foot-6, grew into one of Guamuchil's prettiest and most popular girls, a role model for thousands who dreamed of winning a beauty contest and riding in a parade on top of a Hummer.
Susy wanted the best 15th birthday party in the history of Guamuchil, and her mother was determined to give it to her. She ordered her daughter a custom-made gown, in yellow shantung silk with off-the-shoulder sleeves, to rival the gown of Belle, the princess in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." It cost $2,700, Susy told her friends.
Gamez flew her to Hawaii for a photo shoot - with penguins, volcanos and white farmhouse porches as backdrops. Tourists stopped and asked to be photographed with the real-life princess.
But her quinceañera, as the Latin American fiesta is known, was not to be spared Sinaloa's signature bloodshed.
Susy's godfather for the party, singer Valentin "El Gallo de Oro" Elizalde, was one of the most popular artists in Sinaloa's banda music, with its brash accordions and horns. Two months before Susy's big event, the singer of "narco-corridos" was shot dead after a concert in the violence-wracked border state of Tamaulipas.
The killing, believed to be a narco hit, was never solved.
Dating "El Cholo Ivan"
In 2011, shortly after Susy enrolled in a community college, rumors swirled that she was secretly dating one of El Chapo's top lieutenants, the head hit man and trafficker for a region surrounding Guamuchil - almost a quarter of the state.
Generations of residents have learned what topics not to touch, and one of those was just how and where Susy might have met Orso Ivan Gastelum, known as "El Cholo Ivan."
He had been captured in 2005 for possession of illegal weapons, posted bail, escaped and was arrested again.
El Cholo was serving a six-year sentence in a cell equipped with a refrigerator, Internet and satellite TV - a luxury that Latin American drug dealers typically buy with bribes - when he threw a party in August 2009, inviting prostitutes and a local band into the penitentiary.
Taking a lesson from El Chapo, who famously escaped prison in a laundry truck, El Cholo walked out of the Aguaruto prison disguised as a woman and has been on the lam ever since.
A relative said Susy and El Cholo started dating when she began attending university in Culiacan to pursue a degree in communications, the field her mother had insisted on over Susy's passion for veterinary medicine.
El Cholo, said to be in his mid-30s, may have had his own reasons for keeping the relationship quiet. Not only was he moving from safe house to safe house, he also supposedly was married.
People began to talk.
And then there was the kidnapping.
In the fall of 2011, gunmen drove a truck through six garage doors on a cul-de-sac before grabbing Gamez and her two younger children from their home. The family was held for 12 days.
Gamez was released along with her other daughter to raise a ransom for her son, who was finally freed three weeks later.
Even today, Gamez is reluctant to talk about it. Who were the kidnappers? Gamez shrugged. A rival of the local cartel leader, perhaps.
Gamez moved her family to relative safety in Culiacan.
On Nov. 23, 2012, Susy told her mother she was driving back to Guamuchil for her cousin's birthday party.
On the way, in the village of Caitime, a group of armed men set up an illegal checkpoint, demanding IDs and inspecting cars on a freeway flanked by corn and sorghum fields.
A woman called the army at 9:30 p.m. to complain. A special forces unit was deployed in the middle of the night from a nearby base. The area had been a disputed territory between El Cholo and a rival trafficker.
Soldiers arrived in Caitime at 5 a.m. and found several pickup trucks parked outside a house guarded by armed men. Some of the narcos ran to a truck as shooting broke out at a nearby safe house, leaving one gunman dead.
As the truck pulled away, soldiers gave chase. Several gunmen hijacked a second truck, and the first, a white pickup, stopped - blocking a two-lane highway and allowing the men in the second truck to escape into the Sierra Madre.
As soldiers closed in on the white truck, a young woman in a yellow blouse and black leggings jumped out holding an AK-47. Witnesses heard her scream "Don't shoot!"
But they did. Susy was struck in the collarbone and bled out in three minutes.
Four men, alleged members of the Sinaloa cartel, were arrested that same day, but the army has released no details about the shooting.
Police told the media that Susy had been forced out of the truck as a human shield. But a federal prosecutor said there was gunpowder residue on her hands. Military reports of that night, however, do not say that she fired the rifle.
One soldier testified that he had seen El Cholo during the shootout, and that he escaped.
A month after her death, Guamuchil residents awoke to 67 banners hung about the town. They urged authorities to investigate the army operation in which Susy had been shot.
"The soldiers killed her because they came to kill me and they couldn't," the banners read. "The girl had never carried guns, much less fired them."
They were signed, "Sincerely, Cholo Ivan."