CULIACAN, Mexico (Reuters) - 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”s -- the mark of a rival gang’s hit squad -- cut into her breasts, belly and buttocks.
“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.
Sinaloans say their striking looks come from tall indigenous ancestors who mixed with French, German and Greek settlers, and the state is rich with swashbuckling tales of drug lords whisking girls from villages, luring them to parties at ranches or even kidnapping them at gunpoint.
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.
Most ostentatious are the domed mausoleums erected in cemeteries for drug war victims. Built with windows, air conditioning and an upstairs room for the family to sit and mourn, they are filled with giant portraits, party balloons, toys and models of the victim’s favorite guns and cars.
The wealth that drug lords splash about, especially to help rural communities, and the power they exert earn them respect from old Sinaloans and from youths who think narco chic, like ostrich-leather boots, rhinestones and gold pendants of a local folk hero bandit, is the ultimate cool.
For Miss Sinaloa, or Laura Zuniga, a leggy 23-year-old with piercing dark eyes, eye-popping curves and long black hair, a pair of glittering Chanel earrings were visible as she posed forlornly in a gray cardigan for her police mugshot.
With her husky voice and fair skin, another Sinaloa beauty, Zulema Yulia Hernandez, won the attentions of top drug lord Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman when they were in jail in the 1990s.
Once out, she lived a glamorous life working for his Sinaloa cartel, but it ended horribly in December when she was suffocated, shot and dumped in a car near Mexico City. The “Z”s sliced into her and smeared with black ink suggest her murder was an attack by the rival Gulf cartel’s “Zetas” hitmen.
“It’s more dangerous than before to be around these people because they are out of the control of their bosses,” said a newspaper editor in Culiacan who asked not be quoted by name.
“For years there were codes. The family was respected. But they’re being broken. Last year we saw many more women die.”
Nestled between the Pacific ocean and the western Sierra Madre mountains, Sinaloa’s fertile plains teem with tomatoes and beans, and the hills where marijuana and poppies have thrived for decades spawned Mexico’s first drug barons.
As U.S. demand for cocaine exploded in the 1980s, top trafficker Miguel Angel “The Godfather” Felix Gallardo molded cartel leaders like Guzman, 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 Guzman’s ally 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 Guzman, who is three times her age, in a lavish secret ceremony in 2007, not long after he escaped from the prison where he and Hernandez were lovers.
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.”
Stories abound of men shot for flirting with a trafficker’s girlfriend and schoolgirls terrified by the delivery of dangerously expensive bouquets to their classrooms.
“It’s hard to say ‘No’ nicely so that they get the message without getting angry. It’s very scary,” Sinaloa beauty queen Rosa Maria Ojeda, who was pestered by a capo for months after she won a 2006 pageant, told the daily Reforma.
Editing by Kieran Murray and Philip Barbara