A violent, hours-long car chase and gunfight between the Sinaloa drug cartel and Mexican soldiers over the weekend claimed the life of a young Mexican beauty queen who police said was riding with the drug runners.
The body of Maria Susana Flores Gamez, reportedly in her early 20s, was found outside an armored van along a mountainous road in the cartel-ridden state of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico.
Near Gamez's body, authorities found an AK-47 assault rifle and 60 shell casings, Sinaloa State Attorney General Marco Antonio Higuera Gomez told reporters. Gomez said an investigation is underway to determine if the young woman was among those who fired on the Mexican soldiers.
Gomez said that three other people traveling in the van were killed in the shootout, as was one Mexican soldier, according to Mexican newspaper El Universal. Four suspected gang members were arrested.
The fight began Saturday morning when gunmen shot at Mexican army patrol, according to multiple local reports and the Associated Press. In response, the military men chased the gunmen for hours to a safe house in the city on Mocorito before stopping the van, along with Gamez, on a nearby road.
In the safe house, authorities seized seven AK-47s, a grenade launcher, two grenades, a .40 caliber rifle and a thousand rounds, and six vehicles, one of which was armored, according to Mexican newspaper Milenio.
Gamez, who was studying media and communication at a local university, had a history of modeling and competing in pageants. In February, she won the "Mujer Sinaloa" (Miss Sinaloa) contest, and in May, she represented Mexico in the Miss Oriental Tourism Pageant in China, according to Milenio.
Gamez isn't the first Mexican beauty queen to be involved with drug cartels; Miss Sinaloa 2008, Laura Zuniga, was arrested in the same year she won her title with seven alleged drag traffickers outside Guadalajara, Mexico. A major 2011 Mexican film, "Miss Bala," or Miss Bullet, was loosely based on her story.
Javier Valdez, who wrote the 2009 book "Miss Narco" about the relationships between beauty queens and drug cartels, told the AP that beauty queens are often attracted to the drug traffickers.
"It is a question of privilege, power, money, but also a question of need," Valdez told the AP. "For a lot of these young women, it is easy to get involved with organized crime, in a country that doesn't offer many opportunities for young people."
The powerful Sinaloa drug cartel is headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, a fugitive who the U.S. Department of the Treasury calls "the most powerful drug trafficker in the world." The State Department has offered $5 million for his arrest.
In February, Guzman narrowly evaded arrest during a raid on a mansion in Los Cabos, a tourist area at the southern tip of Baja California and last month, his pregnant daughter was arrested at the San Ysidro crossing south of San Diego, trying to use false papers to sneak into the U.S. and give birth.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.