Mexican Beauty Queen Killed in Shootout Between Alleged Hitmen and Army

A pageant winner with a bright future died in a shootout that authorities expect involved people linked to the Sinaloa drug cartel

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AP / El Debate, Gladys Serrano

Maria Susana Flores Gamez

The evening Maria Susana Flores Gamez was crowned Mujer de Sinaloa, she could have been well on her way to becoming Miss Universe. But instead, winning that beauty pageant in the Mexican state of Sinaloa may have been the high point in a young life shortened by Mexican drug cartel violence.

Flores Gamez, 22, was one of three people killed Saturday in a shootout between an armed gang and the Mexican military in the Mocorito municipality, about 30 miles inland from the Gulf of California. Her body was found in a mountainous region long notorious for drug trafficking and narcotics violence.

(MORE: Mexico’s Drug Lords Ramp Up Their Arsenals with RPGs)

In a statement, Sinaloa State Attorney General Marco Antonio Higuera said that the beauty queen was part of the group of suspected criminals and that a weapon was found near her body. It was unclear whether she had fired it, however, nor could officials say who shot her or what her connection was to the group. “All we know is that it happened during a confrontation that the army had with criminals, and that she was with the group of criminals,” he said.

However, according to the Associated Press, the Mexican military reported Flores Gamez was holding a firearm when she was killed. Soldiers, describing the confrontation in a report say that the gunmen stood behind the woman as the gun battle ensued, which indicates she may have been used as a human shield.

Officials are still awaiting the results of tests to determine whether or not she actually fired the gun.

The Mujer de Sinaloa (Woman of Sinaloa) title was given to Flores Gamez in February, where she beat out more than a dozen other competitors. She went on to the Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa (“Our Beauty Sinaloa”) contest in June, but did not win. A victory would have put her in competition for Miss Mexico, who in turn goes on to vie for Miss Universe.

The incident that killed her started when gunmen began to fire on a group of Mexican army troops, who chased them to a house in Mocorito. Six of the gunmen escaped, dragging the firefight onto a nearby road, where the gang’s vehicles were stopped. Four people were taken into custody. Six vehicles, along with drugs and other weapons, were also seized by authorities.

(MORE: Mexico’s Drug-Corruption Arrests: Why Soldiers Make Bad Narco Agents)

Newspapers in Mexico say that Flores Gamez was actually traveling with a boyfriend who was thought to be a hitman when the violence ensued. The boyfriend, also killed, was alleged to be part of a gang of enforcers linked to the deadly Sinaloa Cartel.

Flores Gamez had been studying communications at a nearby university and had been modeling and competing in pageants at least since 2009, Higuera said.

This wouldn’t be the first time a beauty pageant winner has been linked to a Mexican drug cartel. In 2010 Laura Zuniga, the former Miss Sinaloa, was stripped of the crown she won in 2008 in the Hispanoamerican Queen competition after she was arrested and taken into custody with seven others suspected of drug trafficking. At the time, the group was traveling in vehicles that contained several high-powered firearms and ammunition and about $50,000 in cash. Zuniga was later released with no charges.