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Risky riches for Mexico's 'narco wives'

Teenage girls in northwest Mexico are dazzled by the glamourous "narco wives" who laze in beauty salons, draped in designer gear, getting Swarovski crystals glued onto their fingernails.

Image Credit:Reuters
A woman shows her nails decorated with marijuana leaves and images of narco patron saint Jesus Malverde in the northwestern city of Culiacan.
Gulf News

Culiacan: Teenage girls in northwest Mexico are dazzled by the glamorous "narco wives" who laze in beauty salons, draped in designer gear, getting Swarovski crystals glued onto their fingernails.

Each year, dozens compete in beauty pageants in the sun-baked hills of Sinaloa state where their legendary good looks draw wealthy drug traffickers who will sometimes pluck one out and spirit her off to a mountain hide-out.

Career prospects are few for Sinaloan girls, and landing a prominent drug trafficker means entering a world of untold riches - luxury mansions, SUVs, endless spa sessions and a closet full of the priciest labels on the planet.

The dangers of getting sucked into the gangland world have jumped, however, as an army crackdown by President Felipe Calderon has sparked new turf wars and hitmen ignore old codes against slaying their enemies' wives, girlfriends or children.

In a sobering reminder of the risks they run, the reigning "Miss Sinaloa" beauty queen was arrested last month with her smuggler boyfriend in a truck full of guns and cash.

Days earlier, a top drug boss's former lover was found dead in a car trunk with "Z" - the mark of a rival gang's hit squad - cut into her body.

"It's dangerous to get involved with these people. The risk is there for any pretty girl," said model agency director Juan Manuel Alvarado in his office, crammed with trophies and photos in fake leopard-fur frames, in the state capital Culiacan.

What is new is that more and more women are being murdered in a war that killed around 5,700 people nationwide last year.

"I never let them go to private events or ranches, or give their phone numbers. I don't let them out of my sight," said Alvarado, glancing protectively at three of his models.

Outside, the cartels' presence is obvious, from gleaming SUVs with tinted windows but no plates to the safe houses dotted about and the businesses like plastic surgery clinics and fancy boutiques that locals say are used to launder money.

As US demand for cocaine exploded in the 1980s, top trafficker Miguel Angel "The Godfather" Felix Gallardo moulded cartel leaders, who ran Sinaloan smuggling routes from his ranch in the hills and got into throwing lavish parties decked with pretty girls.

Then chills rippled through the state when the raven-haired wife, Guadalupe, of Hector "El Guero" Palma, was seduced away and decapitated in 1989 by a Venezuelan on the payroll of a rival drug faction.

Her killer also pushed her two children off a bridge to their death and sent Guadalupe's head back in a box to Culiacan, where a morbid portrait of the three now adorns their tomb.

"They are revenge killings. They settle scores. One way to hurt a rival is to kill the woman he loves most," said Ricardo Ravelo, a veteran drug reporter at Mexico's hard-hitting news magazine Proceso.

Such high-profile murders did not deter 18-year-old beauty pageant winner Emma Coronel from marrying top drug lord Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who is three times her age, in a lavish secret ceremony in 2007.

Culiacan residents say they sometimes spot Coronel at the salons that do eyelash implants and decorate false nails with garish designs or photos of loved ones. Local reporters say her parents feel like they've won the lottery.

Yet Coronel is tracked by security wherever she goes, and while capos like Guzman are said to have many lovers, she may never be free to leave him or his clan.

"They fall for the idea that having a narco means a life of luxury," said Martin Meza, mayor of the town of Badiraguato where Guzman was born.

"They give them the life of a queen. But afterward these women become untouchable."