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

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.