January 30, 2009 / 10:35 PM / 10 years ago

Mexico releases beauty queen linked to drug gangs

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A Mexican beauty queen arrested in the company of heavily armed drug suspects will be released after prosecutors decided not to charge her with any offense, the attorney general’s office said on Friday.

Laura Zuniga, 23 and the reigning Miss Sinaloa, was detained along with seven men in December at a military checkpoint. Police found assault rifles and more than $55,000 in cash in the luxury vehicles they had been driving.

The raven-haired beauty from the drug-infested northwestern state of Sinaloa has been a fixture in the Mexican media since she was arrested and placed in a federal detention center.

The attorney general’s office said on Friday it had not found evidence that she was involved in criminal activity.

Prosecutors believe Angel Garcia Urquiza, a leader of the Juarez drug cartel who was with her at the police checkpoint, is Zuniga’s boyfriend. Urquiza and the other men arrested at the checkpoint near the western city of Guadalajara remain in a federal detention center.

Zuniga was slated to compete in the 2009 Miss International contest but she was stripped of her Queen of Hispanic America title in the wake of the arrest.

Sinaloa state is home to major drug smuggling routes into the United States and is a key battleground in the brutal turf war between Mexico’s violent drug cartels.

The escalating battles between cartels and police claimed more than 5,700 lives last year, despite the deployment of the army en masse, and the increasing lawlessness poses a major challenge for President Felipe Calderon’s government.

Reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez

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