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The race to be crowned carnival queen at town in the heart of Mexico's narco country

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    ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, FEB. 24, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - In this Jan. 26, 2013 photo, Magdabelyn Parra Gamez, who goes by Belyn, holds still as her lipstick is applied backstage as she competes in the "Guamuchil Carnival Queen 2013" beauty pageant in Guamuchil, Sinaloa state, Mexico. Belyn, 18, took up the mantle on the pageant circuit after the death of her cousin beauty queen Maria Susana Flores Gamez, who in November 2012 died like a mobster's moll, carrying an AK-47 assault rifle into a spray of gunfire from Mexican soldiers. “This is in memory of Susy,” Belyn whispered, shortly before winning the crown, “In honor of her.” (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) (The Associated Press)

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    ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, FEB. 24, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - This Jan. 26, 2013 photo shows a detail of a beauty contestant's nails during the "Guamuchil Carnival Queen 2013" beauty contest in Guamuchil, Sinaloa state, Mexico. The farming town of 60,000 in the state of Sinaloa, despite its unpaved roads, is full of big mansions hidden behind high walls and iron doors decorated with ornate mirrors and life-size statues of angels. The town has produced at least a Miss Mexico and more recently prides itself in saying the runner up to Miss World 2009 is a native.(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) (The Associated Press)

  • 253881b346f218062a0f6a7067008b60.jpg

    ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, FEB. 24, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - In this Jan. 26, 2013 photo, Magdabelyn Parra Gamez, who goes by Belyn, second from right, poses for photos with fellow beauty contestants backstage at the beauty pageant "Guamuchil Carnival Queen 2013" in Guamuchil, Sinaloa state, Mexico. Parra, 18, looked up to her cousin Maria Susana Flores, who was gunned down by soldiers in a November pre-dawn shootout with presumed criminals. Belyn's close cousin was crowned Sinaloa Woman 2012, homecoming queen, spring queen, model of the year and many other titles. Authorities and a relative have said Maria Susana Flores was dating a dangerous drug cartel lieutenant and hit man for the Sinaloa Cartel. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) (The Associated Press)

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    ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, FEB. 24, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - In this Jan. 26, 2013 photo, dancers watch from backstage as young women compete in the "Guamuchil Carnival Queen 2013" beauty contest in Guamuchil, Sinaloa state, Mexico. Residents packed the local theater filled with banners and posters advertising the queens and filled the aisles and stairways with extra chairs after the seats filled. The town has produced at least a Miss Mexico and more recently prides itself in saying the runner up to Miss World 2009 is a native. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) (The Associated Press)

  • db00210e46f118062a0f6a706700671c.jpg

    ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, FEB. 24, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - In this Jan. 26, 2013 photo, beauty contestant Donaji Lopez holds still as her make-up is applied backstage before competing in the "Guamuchil Carnival Queen 2013" beauty pageant in Guamuchil, Sinaloa state, Mexico. Lopez was named runner-up and Queen of the Floral Games. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) (The Associated Press)

Mothers and daughters packed the squeaky seats of the shabby municipal auditorium in T-shirts and caps with portraits of their candidates. They shook rattles and blew horns as they waved their placards.

What looked like a standard political rally was something much more important: This dusty farm town of 60,000 people was picking its annual carnival queen.

Back stage, four professional stylists worked on top contender Belyn Parra, 18, in humidity that left all the contestants' newly ironed curls sticking to their necks.

The beauty business is serious in Mexico's western state of Sinaloa, where tall, olive-skinned local queens have often gone on to win national and international titles.

For Parra, it was a way to honor her idol and older cousin, Maria Susana Flores, Sinaloa Woman 2012, who died two months earlier in a shootout with Mexican soldiers. Authorities and a relative said Susy, as she was known, was dating a dangerous lieutenant for the Sinaloa drug cartel.

Outside soldiers surrounded the auditorium. Inside, eight contestants donned their sequins in an unlit bathroom with broken tiles.

Parra walked coolly across the stage, dressed for the evening gown competition in a bright pink mermaid gown with silver details bordering the neckline, her biggest worry was whether her black hair would look long enough in a curly ponytail.

Before the winner was revealed, the girls formed a circle backstage and drew their hands to the center like football players before a game.

"Good luck to everyone," a pageant organizer told them. "Remember this experience forever."

Parra won't soon forget. She won the carnival crown, smiling widely as a machine spewed confetti on stage.