MEXICO CITY – Mexican congressmen called for a federal investigation of potential drug cartel ties to the nation's beauty pageants Friday, days after a 23-year-old beauty queen was detained 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 Rep. 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," said Rep. Armando Barreiro.
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 is a cartel leader.
Zuniga was arrested 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 will 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 $53,300 in U.S. currency.
Zuniga told police they were planning to travel to Bolivia and Colombia to go shopping.
Zuniga's father, Jesus Esteban Zuniga, said his daughter had told him she was going to a Christmas party in Guadalajara. He told The Associated Press he does not believe his daughter is involved in drug trafficking.
Zuniga won the Miss Sinaloa title in July. She placed third in the Miss Mexico contest, whose winner competes for the Miss Universe title. As third-runner up, she was expected to represent Mexico in the 2009 Miss International contest.
Pageant organizers say they are awaiting the results of the investigation before deciding whether to strip her of her crown.