Nearly everything about it was journalistic catnip: Laura Elena Zúñiga Huizar, a 23-year-old beauty queen, arrested just outside of the Mexican city of Guadalajara with seven alleged drug traffickers, two assault rifles, handguns, ammunition, 16 cell phones and $53,000 in U.S. currency, just before Christmas Eve. They were going shopping in Bolivia and Colombia, Miss Sinaloa 2008 told the authorities. But beneath the surface lay a tragic reality: few are immune from Mexico's drug war these days.
In Mexican states like Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Baja California and Michoacán, where their trade is most prominent, drug traffickers have long been considered upstanding members of the community. They attend political gatherings and support their candidates of choice, help fund schools and churches, sponsor local events and spur regional economies. They also date, go out to nightclubs and get married. "They have money, they're the businessmen," says Judith Sánchez García, a 24-year-old student from Morelia, Michoacán, a hotbed of drug activity in central Mexico. "I don't go for those guys, but sure, I've partied with some."
It's unclear why Zúñiga Huizar, a former preschool teacher from the drug hotspot of Culiacán, would choose to associate with the men with whom she was arrested—one is an alleged leader of the powerful Juárez cartel—or whether she even had a choice. "If a woman turns down a proposal [from a drug trafficker], her punishment could be death," says Magdalena García Hernández, head of a women's activist group known as Milenio Feminista.
Women's rights have always been a contentious issue in Mexico, known rightly or wrongly for its machismo and, in recent years, notorious for the lack of investigations into the murders of hundreds of women in the border city of Ciudad Juárez. Several thousand women have been locked up in the war on organized crime launched by President Felipe Calderón just over two years ago, and some feminists say that many of them were just guilty by association. "Unfortunately, there are many young women who we've seen implicated in crimes ranging from simple robbery to organized crime," says federal lawmaker Marta Tagle Martínez. Too many of these women, she says, "find themselves in prisons linked to crimes which in reality were committed by their boyfriends or spouses. This is a reality."
Some Mexican columnists have already issued their verdict: she was a good girl out to have a great time with the bad boys. The lie she had told her father—she said she was going to a Christmas party in Guadalajara, he recalled to reporters—is proof she was in search of a "wild time," wrote one pundit a few days after the arrest. The woman who, after winning the Sinaloa contest in the summer issued an impassioned plea for Mexican society to value women, has been stripped of her crown, and federal lawmakers have called for an investigation into drug trafficking links to the nation's beauty pageants.
Fathers like José María Hernández, from Morelia, shudder when they think about the fate that could befall their own daughters. During a conversation at a Morelia restaurant last weekend, he and his 19-year-old daughter Luisa rolled their eyes at each other, as he opened up about his fears while she tried to assert her independence. "As a father, I'm worried anyway," he said. "[But] the narcos are a serious concern—with these guys, you never know." Luisa quickly butted in, saying she was "not interested" in drug dealers. These days, she and her friends take extra precautions when they go out: they go in groups, they always bring male friends with them, they stick together the whole time and they follow a strict rule of not dancing with strangers.
Across the country, more young women are taking such precautions as the drug war infiltrates every corner of society. Reports of drug traffickers taking their pick of local girls at clubs in the southeastern city of Villahermosa in the fall prompted many young women there to forgo the nightlife altogether and resulted in the closure of several clubs, residents say.
Erendira Álvarez, a 25-year-old from Guadalajara who studies law in Mexico City, works as a stripper to raise extra cash. She travels all over Mexico during her vacations, from working-class Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the south to wealthy Monterrey in the north, often hanging out and working in unsavory circles. She knows the risks, and so do her parents. "They don't mind what I do, and I keep in touch regularly," she says. "But they won't let me go to Tijuana, or Ciudad Juárez. It's a real problem we have here."
Álvarez says she has been approached by lower-level drug traffickers in cities like Monterrey and Culiacán. She dreads to think what might have happened if they'd taken a serious liking to her, as some foreign customers have done in the past. "[The foreigners] wanted to buy me, but even though I work as a stripper, I have rights," she says. "I don't know if a narco would have walked away so easily, or respected those rights."
At a bar in Morelia on a recent busy Saturday night, surrounded by three girlfriends and one male friend, Sánchez García downplayed the outrage and shock over Miss Sinaloa's arrest. Drug traffickers have simply become a fact of life, she said, and so has lying in order to enjoy oneself. "We lie to our parents all the time—we say we're going to a friends' house, going shopping," she said. "The beauty queen lie wasn't surprising. What, you're going to tell your parents that you're hanging out at a hotel in Guadalajara with tons of cocaine, alcohol and these chavos [guys]?"
Her friend, 21-year-old Martha Hernández, agreed. "Look, everywhere, in any city, there's the good crowd and bad crowd. Sometimes they mix—politicians, lawyers, drug traffickers, beauty queens … it's a melting pot," she said. Their male friend, Hernán García, wasn't quite so flippant. Normally, going out with the girls and looking out for them is fine, he said—he does his best to stave off any undesirable characters. But he knows that some things are out of his control. "If a narco comes up and says, 'You're hot,' you know you're f--ked."
Malcolm Beith is the Mexico editor at The News in Mexico City