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.
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 has 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 as common here as car crashes, 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.
And 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.
"People know I hardly forgive,' one of the songs says. "Sometimes I am bloodthirsty. I tear them to pieces. I like doing things my way."
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 after 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 semi-automatic 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 long on bloodshed and short on justice, this one was never solved. Hearsay blurred into rumor, and then myth. 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.
Susy was curious about her tall, green-eyed father.
"Tell me about him," she often asked her mother.
"He was a good man," Gamez would say.
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."
"She was very strong spiritually," her mother said. Susy rarely cried, but Gamez sensed pain in her sad eyes and worried about how much she slept.
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 (1.70 meters), 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.
"I wanted to be just like her," said her closest cousin, Belyn Parra, 18.
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 quinceanera, 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.
On a sunny Saturday in January 2007, Susy arrived at the Catholic church on Guamuchil's main avenue, escorted by 10 young men dressed as royal guards. The garden party that followed was held in white tents decorated with crystal chandeliers.
Susy's younger cousin, Belyn, made her First Communion at the same event. Belyn stood in awe as the band played, and a singer crooned a song written for Susy.
Her birthday gift was a $30,000 white, Chrysler 300C luxury sedan, a status symbol in Sinaloa. The local paper covered her party. The headline: "Magical."
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.
There are many taboo subjects in Sinaloa, questions that hang unanswered in an air thick with fear. 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."
Stocky, with black hair and thick eyebrows, El Cholo was a celebrated Sinaloa Cartel lieutenant who favored sleeveless shirts and hip-hop fashion over the traditional narco cowboy garb. He had been captured in 2005 on possession of illegal weapons, posted bail, escaped and was arrested again.
El Cholo was serving a 6-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.
Songs about El Cholo tell the story of a man looking to avenge the death of his father, also reportedly a drug trafficker.
"Death became my hobby," one of the songs goes.
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.
Friends said Susy was coy about who she was dating. She told childhood friend Alberth Valles that she couldn't say much for safety reasons. Valles assumed the boyfriend was in with the wrong crowd. Local informants, meanwhile, reported that the couple was frequently seen together.
Cousin Belyn knew everything, but kept it secret. She didn't want to betray her mentor, who was now encouraging the shorter but beautiful Belyn to follow her into the pageant world.
Gamez never believed there was any romance between her daughter and the cartel lieutenant.
"Susana wasn't a needy woman or a gold digger," she said. "She grew up with everything she could have wanted."
El Cholo, said to be in his mid-30s, may have had his own reasons for keeping the relationship quiet. Not only was he in the wind, 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.
"Susana was alone," Gamez said. "She was thinking she had lost her family, that we were never coming back."
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 and the following year, Susy began to prepare for her biggest contest, Miss Sinaloa 2012, in June. Besides numerous photo shoots, interviews and more than $2,000 in clothes, the winner would compete in the national Miss Mexico pageant, and if lucky, Miss Universe or Miss World.
But because many parents didn't want the exposure the pageant brought on their daughters, only 14 girls went to the casting call.
Miss Mexico's head of operations, Ana Laura Corral, arrived from the capital for the casting and videotaped the contestants. She and the famous Lupita Jones, the first Mexican to win Miss Universe, chose Susy and seven others.
A day after their names were published, a message was posted on Miss Sinaloa's official Facebook page: "Everyone in Guamuchil knows that Susana Flores is dating a hit man named Ivan, also known as El Cholo. He's killed a lot of people. You can verify it ... Ask anyone."
The Sinaloa contest coordinator dismissed those comments as pure gossip. Still, in the 2012 Miss Sinaloa pageant, Susy didn't even make the top four.
On Nov. 23, 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 assault rifle. Witnesses heard her scream "Don't shoot!"
But they did. Susy was struck in the collarbone and bled out in three minutes, as military helicopters hovered overhead.
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; and other state and federal officials said soldiers never noticed a woman firing.
One soldier testified that he had seen El Cholo during the shootout, and that he escaped.
For her final ride down Guamuchil's main street, Susy wore a crown and a strapless, sparkly green gown. Musicians followed the white hearse, playing sousaphone, trombone and cymbals.
Susy was buried with her father in a mausoleum that Gamez expanded for her, adding murano glass lamps and marbled walls. She placed a red suede chair resembling a throne inside the chapel, "for the queen," she mumbled.
On the dirt road where Susy died sits a stone cross and montage of her best beauty queen moments -- a Latin American tradition marking the spot where she last lived. The candles have melted and balloons celebrating the 21st birthday she never saw have withered.
Susy's younger cousin, Belyn, took up the mantle on the pageant circuit. At the town theatre for the Guamuchil Carnival beauty pageant in January, she and seven other contestants primped before the competition. Outside, more than two dozen soldiers surrounded the building with guns drawn -- more than anyone had seen at a local pageant before.
"This is in memory of Susy," Belyn whispered, shortly before winning the crown, "In honor of her."
Susy's boyfriend tried to honor her too.
A month after her death, Guamuchil residents awoke to 67 banners hung about the town -- the narco version of a public address system. 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."