“¡Silencio, por favor!”
The chattering audience in the bleachers at Televisoras Grupo Pacífico’s Culiacán soundstage is causing programming director Francisco Arce Camarena a great deal of stress. It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in late May, and filming of a casting for the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa’s most prominent annual beauty pageant needs to get under way. Behind Arce Camarena, 16 young women pose in an arc, delicately positioned on an ivory set with the letters NB, for Nuestra Belleza (“Our Beauty”), written in pink cursive. So stunning that they look like onyx-haired Barbies come to life, the women have their hands on their outer hips, their front-facing knees gently bent and smiles twitching on their angel-like faces. In accordance with pageant requirements, they’re all between 18 and 24, five-foot-five or taller and at least conversant in English. They’ve arrived from all across the state. Those who make the cut today will go on to compete in Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa, whose winner will be in the running for Nuestra Belleza Mexico, which funnels its titleholder to Miss Universe—one of the largest beauty pageants in the world. This morning, the women stand beneath glaring television lights, in front of a now-silent audience full of their hopeful families and friends, waiting to be evaluated. But once today’s casting airs, the judges won’t be the only ones watching. The women will be seen by all of Mexico, including the region’s richest and most dangerous men—members of the Sinaloa cartel. Widely believed to be one of the most powerful drug-trafficking organizations in the Western hemisphere, the cartel is among the largest suppliers of heroin, meth, marijuana and cocaine to the U.S. Its leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, is reportedly worth $1 billion. He made international headlines the past few years for being captured, escaping from prison through a tunnel, scurrying off on a motorcycle, giving an interview to Sean Penn and then being captured again just a few months later.
For decades, men like El Chapo have courted pageant queens with money and gifts, pursuing them as aggressively as real estate moguls chasing a hot piece of property in L.A. or New York. Some women fend them off, wary of the violence of narco life. Others compete in pageants with the explicit goal of meeting rich but potentially dangerous men, weighing the risk against the chance to lift themselves and their families out of the poverty from which many of them come.
“Most of the girls know this guy might kill them any minute, anytime, anywhere,” says Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a Culiacán-based reporter and author of the 2010 book Miss Narco. “But that’s the only way to mobilize in this society. There’s no employment here. That’s the only option they see.”
It’s impossible to say how cognizant pageant contestants are of narcos’ covetous eyes when they sign up. While Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa can be a legitimate career step, it’s also a guaranteed way to draw attention—wanted or not—from the cartel’s most powerful operatives.
The pageant’s reputation as an avenue for drug lords to discover new women isn’t a secret, says Valdez Cárdenas. And when it comes to the money and power they hope will serve as bait, “nothing can compete against narcotraffickers,” he says. “There’s no religion, no political body, no government that can compete—they have more money and power than anyone.”
Culiacán is Sinaloa’s capital and largest city. Much of the rest of the state is rural; most inhabitants are farmers who produce tomatoes, wheat and sugarcane, among other things. The fertile soil is what has made the cartel’s marijuana- and opium-growing operations so successful.
It sees fewer tourists than other Sinaloan cities, including the beachside destination of Mazatlán. A known hub of cartel activity, Culiacán has been painted by international newspapers as the type of place where foreigners may be shot or kidnapped as soon as they step off a plane. In reality, parts of the city look more like a quaint European village, a colorful medley of one-story buildings, street murals and outdoor cafés, with sidewalk stands selling horchata and other aguas frescas. A local museum exhibits works of Sinaloa’s most influential artists.
When I arrive the week before the casting, the temperature in Culiacán is approaching 100 degrees. The air is tawny brown, and refracted light bounces off the asphalt. I’m here, admittedly, without much of a plan; my months-long attempts to reach pageant organizers have gone exactly nowhere. But there is some promise: My fixer, Miguel Ángel Vega—who also works as a reporter for Ríodoce, a Culiacán weekly paper—made contact this week with a representative who assured him we would be granted access to Tuesday’s event.
In Mexico, pageants factor far more prominently in the public consciousness than they do in the U.S. Titleholders become national celebrities; little girls look up to them, wanting to do what they do.
And part of what they do, it seems, is get mixed up with drug lords. One of the first known 20th century weddings of a narcotrafficker and a Mexican beauty queen was between the nephew of Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana and Miss Sinaloa 1958 Kenya Kemmermand Bastidas. The following decade, Ana Victoria Santanares—Miss Sinaloa 1967—wed Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, a reputed founder of Mexico’s Guadalajara cartel.
Sinaloa has a reputation for producing some of the country’s most beautiful women. To narcos, these women are prizes.
The tradition was updated in 2007 when El Chapo himself descended on the small town of Canelas, Durango in a legendary display of courtship. According to news reports, Guzmán Loera arrived by plane during a local celebration, flanked by hundreds of armed men, to woo 17-year-old Miss Coffee and Guava contestant Emma Coronel Aispuro. The two were soon married, and Coronel Aispuro bore Guzmán Loera two daughters. She was by his side when he was arrested in a Mazatlán condo in 2014.
Coronel Aispuro has remained untouched, but the same can’t be said for other women associated with the cartel. In 2008, El Chapo’s mistress Zulema Hernández was killed, some suspect by members of rival cartel Los Zetas. Her body, with the letter Z reportedly carved into it, was left in a car trunk. In 2012, beauty queen María Susana Flores Gámez was caught in a shoot-out between Mexican soldiers and high-ranking Sinaloa cartel member Orso Iván Gastélum Cruz, whom she was dating. Gastélum Cruz escaped. Flores Gámez was killed.
The violence hasn’t hampered the relationship between narcos and pageant queens, particularly in Sinaloa. The state has a nationwide reputation for producing some of the country’s most beautiful women. To narcos, these women are prizes.
Manuel (not his real name) is a mid-level trafficker who claims to work for the cartel. At a ranch in Pericos, a town 30 miles north of Culiacán, Manuel—who has a wife and two girlfriends—explains the connection between cartel members and beauty queens. “Women and power, they are the same,” he says. “If you have power, you can have women. It’s a luxury. Women love power. That’s why we have so many women—because we can afford them.”
Nelly Peña, 23, steps out of her boyfriend’s beat-up white sedan into the blazing Culiacán sun. She’s wearing John Lennon sunglasses, high-waisted jeans and a white crop top. Her thick curly hair is piled on top of her head. She seems a bit short for a beauty queen, but her looks allowed her to work as a model when she was younger. She says her agency encouraged her to raise her profile by competing in pageants.
Resting against the car and occasionally reprimanding her Labrador, Simba, that’s running free in the streets—“¡Simba, fuera! ¡Rápido!”—Peña explains she took up her agents’ suggestion as a way to advance her career.
“I want to be a TV host, and I want to be good,” she says. “But my dream is to become an actress. That’s what really triggers me.”
In that sense, many women audition for Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa for the same reasons they might vie for the title of, say, Miss America or America’s Next Top Model. They want to be actresses or models, TV hosts or spokespeople. The pageant can serve as a launching pad.
But Peña was immediately instructed in the not-so-secret underpinnings of the beauty world. “Culiacán es muy pequeña,” she says. Culiacán is very small. “The narcotraffickers know the heads of modeling agencies, so they know who is competing.”
According to Peña, those agency heads will sometimes set up a date between a narcotrafficker and a woman at the narco’s request.
“They say, ‘There is this person who wants to meet you. He can support you in many ways. He can open doors for you,’ ” says Peña. Sometimes they’re more blunt: “‘¿Quieres más dinero?’” she says. Do you want to make more money?
The women are indirectly encouraged to be nice to the men, to flirt, and soon may find themselves on the receiving end of expensive gifts—cars, phones, trips around the world.
“Que sí”—if you say yes to them—“you have a car outside your house the next day,” says Peña. Seeing the surprise on my face, she says, “If you’re impressed, imagine how they feel when they have nothing and all of a sudden they have a car.”
With their activities largely unchecked by cops—many of whom are threatened or paid off—narcos are often free to do whatever they want, to whomever they want. When it comes to courting the state’s bellezas, their pickup techniques have all the subtlety of clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her back to a cave. “When a narco sees a girl he likes, he sends a worker to follow her,” says Josue (not his real name), who once ran cash for the cartel. The worker gets the woman’s address, then the narco starts sending presents.
Manuel confirms this. “If they’re hot, I will select them,” he says. “You ask for their phone number, and you send them gifts—expensive ones, like diamond rings or gold necklaces. Then you just take them to bed.
“I told you,” he adds, “women love power. And they know who holds the power.”
“We’re in El Chapo’s territory now,” Ángel Vega says on the Friday morning before the casting. We’re driving south toward Televisoras Grupo Pacífico’s Mazatlán office. We haven’t heard back from pageant reps after leaving several messages, and Arce Camarena, our primary contact, has been slippery. After promising us VIP access to the casting earlier in the week, he has since avoided our calls. Ángel Vega suggests we make the more than two-hour trip to drop in and say hi.
Outside the borders of Culiacán, the landscape becomes immediately and jarringly rural. Unlike the piled-up buildings of the city, homes in the countryside are scattered amid browned fields. The roadside trails off into dirt with almost no separation from the asphalt.
Narcotrafficking is a way of life in this society. Every single road connects to the narco world. That’s our reality.
Thirty minutes into our drive, I explain my original plan for reporting this story: to fly in and out of Culiacán without the cartel knowing I was here. Ángel Vega—who has been reporting on the Sinaloa cartel for almost a decade—turns to me from the driver’s seat.
“Without the cartel knowing?” he says, then throws his head back and laughs. “They already know you’re here.”
The cartel has fly lists, he explains. Upon recognizing the name of an American journalist, operatives would have looked into me, possibly even found out what story I was trying to do, then decided whether I would have access or not.
“If they didn’t want you to tell this story, no one would talk to you,” he says. “You would get no interviews. You pose no danger to them, so you’re okay.”
This is a blow to my ego—as a journalist, my job is to pose a danger to certain people. But it also makes me realize how much I’ve bought into the myth of the cartel as an underground operation—and of myself as a sort of secret infiltrator.
Valdez Cárdenas explains later that, to Sinaloans, such an assumption is almost laughable. “You have to understand,” he says, “narcotrafficking is a way of life in this society. Every single road connects to the narco world. That’s our reality.”
When we finally arrive in Mazatlán, Ángel Vega finagles our way into the station by saying we have a meeting with Arce Camarena. We’re shown through a series of corridors, then deposited on a couch outside a production office. Minutes later, a young dude dressed in what is apparently the international uniform for TV bros—distressed jeans, a hoodie over a T-shirt, Warby Parker–like glasses—comes out. He speaks to Ángel Vega for a minute in Spanish, then Ángel Vega translates. Arce Camarena isn’t here, he says. He’s out in the field. But he’s so sorry he missed us, and we’re all set with VIP press access to next week’s casting.
We are both skeptical.
In the Las Quintas area of Culiacán, Conchita Torres’s eponymous beauty salon is on the second floor of a white and beige stucco building. One of the most renowned hair and makeup stylists in the city, Torres says she has been working with Televisoras Grupo Pacífico for nine years.
With iridescent brown eyes and a shy smile she can’t help flashing every time something amuses her, which is often, Torres talks about the contestants as gently as if they were her own children. It’s now Monday night, and her job at tomorrow’s casting is to tweak whatever looks the women show up with, making them both pageant- and camera-ready. “I tell them, ‘This is too much’ or ‘This is not enough,’” she says. “‘So let’s just balance what you did.’”
Their hair will be styled in soft waves. Their skin should be even—“not very dark on the arms and light on the shoulders, or vice versa,” says Torres—and their makeup will be natural. (Natural for pageants and television is, of course, a bit different from natural for every day.)
As it happens, when we arrive, Torres is also being visited by Alejandra Rubi Pérez López, 2015’s Miss Teenager Mexico and Miss Teenager Earth. Quietly thumbing through magazines in a salon chair, Pérez López is so pretty it’s hard not to stare. She’s tall and slim with delicate features, and her thick, espresso brown hair pours perfectly over her shoulders. As of today, Pérez López says, she’s been competing in pageants for two years. She started as a way to help her family, but she has determined that the experience also helps her professional polish; she wants to work in marketing one day.
“You see a lot of people from different places, and you learn a lot about different countries,” she says, never dropping her Vaseline smile. “It’s great for my career.”
Pérez López doesn’t have a boyfriend—she says her manager has advised her to stay single until she’s 25. “I have to devote my focus to my career,” she says. “I’m only 18.”
But should she catch the eye of the wrong man—even if she turns him down—she may find someone coming after her.
Raquel Vega works at a different beauty salon, one that’s popular with narco women. For narcos’ mistresses, she says, the biggest risk isn’t the narco himself—it’s his wife.
“The wives send hit men to kill the girlfriends,” she says. “The wife is the worst enemy they have.”
Her clients often spend entire days at the salon—“manicures, pedicures, hair extensions, facial treatments,” Vega says—which can cost up to $600. Many go further, getting breast and butt implants until they begin to look like caricatures. “They don’t care about being educated, funny, smart—it’s only how they look on the outside,” she says.
But accepting money from a drug lord comes at a price, and Manuel isn’t shy about the fact that he expects sex on demand. “Fuck yes,” he says. “That’s why you pay for their shit. I can go to any of my mistresses, and they better put out.”
In fact, he takes it one step further. “I own them,” he says. “If you have a pet, whose is that pet? It’s yours! Your brother, your cousin, your neighbor—they’re not paying for your women; you are. So you own them.”
Still, the allure of narcotraffickers is well understood. A young woman I’ll call Guadalupe (she won’t tell me her real name) says she competed in Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa several years ago. She works as a model now, but some of her friends wound up with narcos. She doesn’t begrudge them their choices.
“If, in their hearts, they believe their decisions are the best, I wish them well,” she says.
It’s too soon to say whether Pérez López will be able to fend off suitors. In the meantime, she focuses on her pageant talent. Leaning forward in the salon chair, she pulls out her phone to show us a sample. It’s a traditional Sinaloan deer dance, in which Pérez López plays the part of the deer.
“Supposedly you are being hunted. You are hiding from the hunter because you know he is after you, so you are trying to hide away every time,” she says. “You are prey.”
At 8:30 the next morning, the hallway at Televisoras Grupo Pacífico’s Culiacán soundstage is full of women. They are otherworldly, tight dresses hugging their curves, their hair magnificently cresting down their backs.
We quickly find Arce Camarena, or rather he finds us. It’s then, as we’re about to clinch the story we’re actually here to report, that we find out what has been going on all these months.
First Arce Camarena apologizes—he can’t let us in. The network told him we’re with playboy, and they don’t want to be associated with the magazine. Then, as we press him, he says he can’t let us in because we lied about not contacting the network. (No such lie was told.)
Finally, five minutes before the cameras flick on, Arce Camarena begins a rapid-fire conversation with Ángel Vega in Spanish. I don’t catch all of it, but I do make out “narcotráfico.” The real reason they don’t want us here, it turns out, is because they believe we have nefarious intentions when it comes to the angle of the story.
It’s a point I can’t argue with. Journalists come to Sinaloa from all over the world to taste the danger associated with the cartel. Many have more straightforward assignments than I do—they want to go to opium fields or interview hit men. But we’re all after the same thing: exposing cartel culture.
Which is why I do not give full disclosure; I do not tell the truth when Arce Camarena finishes his conversation with Ángel Vega and approaches me.
“What is your angle?” he asks.
“I want to write about how different beauty pageants are in Mexico than they are in the U.S.”
“What is your angle?” he repeats.
“Well, I also want to talk about how Sinaloa has the most beautiful girls in the country.”
He sighs. “Amiga,” he says. “I know you are going to do whatever you’re going to do with your notes and interviews. But I just ask that you not take a negative angle.”
I am embarrassed, I am humbled, and I briefly debate calling the story off. After all, I believe Nelly, and I believe Alejandra, and I believe Guadalupe when they say they entered pageants to advance their careers. What woman can be faulted for using a God-given advantage to secure her future? If that advantage happens to be beauty, so be it. Why should I tarnish the image of an organization that offers them that opportunity?
Arce Camarena decides to let us stay, but we have to wait outside. He then disappears behind the two doors separating us from the soundstage.
It’s now one minute to showtime. I stand in the hallway with Ángel Vega and our photographer, all of us unsure if we should leave. Right then, a blonde woman dressed like a CEO pushes open the doors and heads inside. Ángel Vega, looking straight ahead, says, “You might make it in.”
I have seconds to make the call. I jump up and follow her into the room.
Arce Camarena is pacing in front of the bleachers, yelling commands to a crew of at least a dozen. The 16 contestants are now onstage, so brightly lit that their primary-color dresses make them look like a box of beautiful crayons: bright yellow, deep blue, siren red.
The women look like lean, classy Kardashians, all cartoon curves, big eyes and hair that should smell of strawberries.
Perla Beltrán Acosta, Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa 2008, who now serves as the pageant’s coordinator, is demonstrating the proper way to walk. She glides across the stage, turns down the runway, stops at the microphone, turns again and glides back. The women laugh at how easy she makes it look. When she steps away for an on-camera interview, the competitors are briefly released to change clothes before filming officially begins. They scatter to find their parents and friends. One yells up to the bleachers: “¡Mama!” Her mother tosses down a multi-colored bikini top. “¡Y los otros!” Down come the matching bottoms.
Suddenly I feel two large hands on my shoulders. Arce Camarena, somehow, has materialized behind me. “Amiga,” he says again, “you know you’re not supposed to be in here.”
I fumble through a shoddy explanation: I thought only my photographer couldn’t come in. Couldn’t I just stand back here and watch? I don’t even have my notebook with me, see? He looks at me as if he pities my dilemma and my general state of existence.
“Fine,” he says, turning to walk away. “But if I see you recording, I’m kicking you out.”
Ten minutes later, the contestants reappear wearing only bathing suits and high heels. The cameras roll, and the contest begins.
In online photos, the women in Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa’s annual lineup look like lean, classy Kardashians, all cartoon curves, implausibly big eyes and hair that seems like it should smell perpetually of strawberries. In person, they’re even more unreal. Gathering at the stage’s edge in groups of three, they step up one by one, cross to the middle, bear left down the runway and approach the microphone to answer questions from the four judges.
The first contestant seems nervous but not inexperienced. At the end of the runway, she places her hand expertly on her hip. The questions take about three minutes, and she is then escorted into a room behind the bleachers.
The second has a bit more spunk. She stops to pose at the microphone, shaking her extravagant hair out behind her.
Contestant number three speaks in a mature, soothing alto. Placing her fingertips delicately on the microphone, she addresses the judges. “Buenos días,” she says. Why do you think you should be Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa? “Por mi carisma.”
The women continue their parade for more than an hour. Each presents a slight variation on the aesthetic theme: One has a waist so small her hands touch when she places them on her hips. Another looks so young and wobbly her presence here is almost uncomfortable. One of the last to take the stage is jaw-dropping: Wearing a purple keyhole bikini top and matching bottom, she is all soft skin and taut muscle. A male judge on the panel unabashedly asks her to turn and walk toward the back of the stage—twice.
“Why do you want to be Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa?” he asks her.
“Porque soy hermosa.” Because I’m beautiful.
It’s 11:41 a.m. when the last contestant takes her turn. The finale is bumpy; she makes it about halfway down the runway before the worst befalls her—she trips, landing on her knees with a thud. A gasp rises from the crowd. The woman in front of me covers her mouth with both hands. But our hero recovers; she stands back up, takes a deep breath, gestures dramatically to the floor, suggesting to the room that she fell because of a wet spot, and returns to the back of the stage, allowing a frantic stagehand to furiously mop the area in question. She then starts her walk over again, steps up to the microphone and giggles. All is forgotten.
With the contest complete, the elimination will take place on the spot. We are barred explicitly from this portion of the event, so we wait in the hallway as the contestants learn their fates. When they emerge, most breeze right past us. Their faces reveal nothing, in true beauty queen form.
Ángel Vega and I are driving aimlessly around the city. It’s the day after the casting, and no one will speak to me. Calls to Arce Camarena go straight to voice mail. Ross Beltrán, a pageant trainer, offered yesterday to introduce us to the current Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa. Now he won’t answer his phone. Even the contestants, the women whose stories I’m looking for, won’t take my calls or reply to texts. (Arce Camarena, when asked later, will deny having anything to do with this.)
The previous day’s finalists spend the coming weeks training in public speaking, runway walking and talent, and on July 2, Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa 2016 is crowned: Denisse Iridiane Franco Piña, the same contestant who called out to her mother to toss down her bikini. She is notably exquisite, even, I dare say, more so than her competitors.
Nothing indicates that this pageant was fixed, though most culichis say it’s common knowledge that narcotraffickers buy victories for their favorite women. Then again, it’s hard to know what’s real in Sinaloa’s pageant world. When María Susana Flores Gámez was killed in 2012, the story was reported around the world: “A 20-year-old state beauty queen died in a gun battle between soldiers and what appeared to be a gang of drug traffickers,” wrote the Associated Press. “A Mexican beauty queen was killed during a weekend shoot-out in Sinaloa,” said CNN.
The story told by most culichis, though, is quite different.
The man with Flores Gámez on the night she died, Orso Iván Gastélum Cruz, is known colloquially as El Cholo Iván. He’s a mean-looking motherfucker; U.S. authorities have called him one of the most violent men in the Sinaloa cartel. While accounts of their courtship vary, according to multiple sources, El Cholo started to pursue Flores Gámez when she was just 15 or 16 years old and he was about 25. When she supposedly turned him down, he decided to force the issue.
“He kidnapped her family,” says one source. “Su madre y su hermano.” Her mother and her brother.
Maybe Flores Gámez grew to love the man some say pushed himself into her life. Or maybe she was so terrified she didn’t dare leave. But what’s clear is this: On the day of her death, she was with El Cholo. When their entourage was overtaken by the Mexican army in a small Sinaloan village, El Cholo reportedly told Flores Gámez to stay in the truck, saying she wouldn’t be shot because she was a woman. He and some of his entourage then escaped.
Newspapers would report that Flores Gámez was holding a gun when she stepped from the truck. Officials did not confirm whether she fired. Either way, when she emerged, María Susana Flores Gámez was shot dead.
Not all women who date narcotraffickers have their lives end in tragedy. Nor do all men who work for the cartel: After running cash for the cartel for just one year, Josue was captured by a rival cartel in Tijuana. He was held for 72 hours and tortured—his hand still bears the scars. But he feels lucky to have escaped with his life.
“After I got caught and tortured,” he says, “I thought, I don’t want to die.”
Still, narcos are seemingly in the mind-set of violence more often than not. Manuel claims he has never hit a woman, but he has come close. “Once I was drunk, and I crashed one of their doors,” he says. “I didn’t hit her, but I destroyed her fucking room. Then I had to pay for repairs. It is a damn circle: fight, reconciliation, make up. It is like a fucking war.”
But is it really so different, powerful men hunting beautiful women, from what happens anywhere else in the world? From Los Angeles to New York, underage girls are routinely seduced by middle-aged executives. The violence is certainly less flagrant, but accusations of statutory rape make headlines—and the alleged perpetrators rarely face consequences.
Beautiful women have one thing powerful men can’t get via their usual means, whatever those means may be. The acquisition of that beauty by force, then, seems to be met with a blind eye—no matter what country you call home.
The night before I leave Culiacán, I visit Peña again to say good-bye. She lives in a one-bedroom house with her mother, her boyfriend, her four-month-old daughter and Simba. Their toilet is broken, and discarded objects are pushed into corners throughout the house.
Peña is about to start a job at a television station that she hopes will support her family. She still dreams of acting—she loves Tarantino movies, including The Hateful Eight. Angelina Jolie and Dakota Fanning are her favorite actresses.
Before I leave, Peña’s mother acknowledges that the family doesn’t have much. “But,” she says, “we are happy.”
When it comes to her own daughter, Peña hopes to raise her the same way she was raised: self-sufficient, confident and with bulletproof values.
“I want to raise her to be the best she can possibly be and support her in anything she wants to do,” she says. “Whatever she decides.”