Sun, Dec 28, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Mexico to probe beauty pageants

DIRTY MONEY: The arrest of Miss Sinaloa while riding in a truck full of weapons and money points to ties between the pageants and cartel money laundering


Laura Elena Zuniga Huizar celebrates after winning the beauty contest Hispanoamerican Queen in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on Oct 28. Zuniga Huizar was arrested with seven accomplices in possession of guns and thousands of dollars in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday.


Mexican congressmen called for a federal investigation of potential drug cartel ties to the nation’s beauty pageants on Friday after a 23-year-old beauty queen was arrested on suspicion of drug and weapons violations.

Congressional leaders warned that cartels may have infiltrated contests to launder money and said a full investigation was needed.

To many, former preschool teacher Laura Zuniga, named Miss Sinaloa in the drug-plagued northern state’s annual beauty contest, symbolizes declining ethics in Mexico.

“It is very sad. What we are seeing is a loss of values among young people,” said Representative Juan Francisco Rivera, who heads the congressional public safety committee. “There should be an investigation to get to the bottom of this and make sure it [the pageant] is not linked to some type of crime.”

Northern Mexico’s entertainment industry — including concerts, contests and musical groups — has been dogged by reports that powerful drug cartels have “adopted” performers or played a role in laundering drug money through ticket offices.

“There are certainly links to things like money laundering because of the large amounts of money that are spent on producing these types of contests,” Representative Armando Barreiro said.

A Sinaloa state official suggested that pageant organizers may have put Zuniga on a fast track to win the contest, though he did not say why she might have been selected, local media reported.

Investigators have said her boyfriend was a cartel leader.

Zuniga was arrested on Monday while riding in a truck filled with weapons. She and seven men arrested with her will be held for 40 days while police decide whether to charge them, the federal Attorney General’s Office said in a statement.

Prosecutors on Friday said she would be held under house arrest pending an investigation into possible drug trafficking and gun charges.

Investigators say Zuniga was dating one of the detained men, Angel Orlando Garcia, alleged to be one of the leaders of the powerful Juarez drug cartel.

The couple was traveling with six alleged bodyguards in Zapopan, outside Guadalajara, when soldiers stopped their two trucks at a military checkpoint. Inside, authorities found a large stash of weapons, ammunition and US$53,300 in US currency.

Zuniga told police they were planning to travel to Bolivia and Colombia to go shopping.

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