The trouble in Miss Bala, out February 1, begins quickly. Gloria (Gina Rodriguez), who hasn’t been back to her native Mexico in years, piles into her sedan with makeup supplies and crosses the border into Tijuana to support her friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), who is entering a pageant. On her first night in Mexico, Gloria and Suzu go to the Millennium Night Club. Within what seems like seconds, gunfire breaks out. Suzu is captured. In setting out to find her friend, Gloria becomes enmeshed with the drug cartel.
Miss Bala is loosely based on a 2011 Mexican movie of the same name, acclaimed for its gritty, brutal portrayal of a young pageant contestant forced to do favors for a Baja California cartel — and is eventually punished by authorities for doing so. In turn, Miss Bala was based on an actual connection between the winner of the 2008 Nuestra Belleza Mexico pageant and a cartel. Both versions of the film point to the long, surprising, and often tragic history of pageant queens and Mexican drug cartels.
The Miss Bala franchise references a scandal that occurred in 2008. In September 2008, 23-year-old Laura Elena Zúñiga Huizar, a model and kindergarten teacher, was headed for pageant glory. Zúñiga, competing for the state of Sinaloa, had just won the Nuestra Belleza Mexico pageant. As a result, she would be headed to represent Mexico at the Miss Universe and Miss International pageants in 2009. In October 2008, Zúñiga also won the Reina Hispanoamericana pageant while competing for Mexico.
But by December of the same year, Zúñiga's name would be associated with drug trafficking, as well as pageant-queening. In late December, Zúñiga was arrested at a military checkpoint in Zapopan, near the city of Guadalajara, along with seven men. Police searched their two trucks and found assault weapons, ammunition, 16 cell phones, and $53,300 cash. Later, it was revealed that the traveling party consisted of Zúñiga, her boyfriend, Ángel Orlando García Urquiza, who had links to a Juarez cartel, and six bodyguards.
In the aftermath, Zuniga became better known for her gaunt face in a police line-up, Chanel earrings poking through her hair, than being crowned in a yellow dress. But what was she doing with the caravan? According to Zúñiga's statement to police, she and her boyfriend were taking a shopping trip to Bolivia and Colombia, though she had told her father she was going to a Christmas party in Guadalajara. In the ensuing media spectacle, journalists pointed out that Bolivia and Colombia are both suppliers of cocaine for Mexican cartels.
Zúñiga attested to her innocence. She was still sentenced to 40 days in a detention center, but was ultimately released in January after the judge found no evidence of criminal activity. Even if she was innocent of collaborating with a cartel, Zúñiga's pageant dreams were dashed. While she was in the detention center, she was dethroned as Miss Mexico International 2008 and Reina Hispanoamericana 2008.
Zúñiga has since come back to modeling, but the association between her and the narcos persisted. She was mistaken in the media for Emma Coronel Aispuro, El Chapo's third wife. Like Zúñiga, Coronel was also a pageant winner from the state of Sinaloa. Coronel, who married El Chapo when she was 18 years old, follows in a long line of pageant queens who became enmeshed in Mexican cartels dating back to 1967, when Miss Sinaloa Ana Victoria Santanares married Ernesto Carillo Fonseco, a cartel boss depicted in Narcos: Mexico.
Often, these pairings end in tragedy. In 2012, 20-year-old Miss Sinaloa Maria Susana Flores Gamez was traveling in a van on a mountainous road with hitmen associated with a Sinaoan cartel. The men started firing at a Mexican army patrol, leading to a shoot-out. Tragically, Flores was killed. According to an official in the prosector's office, Flores was used as a human shield by the cartel members. Similarly, Tatiana Thompson, Miss Sinaloa of 1968, was killed in a shoot-out while on vacation with her boyfriend in Disneyland in 1982.
As the movie Miss Bala suggests, the women may not have much of a say in their association with cartels. "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 told the Reforma of the attention she received from a drug lord after winning a 2006 pageant.
Miss Bala borrows from Zúñiga's story (for example, the characters share a name and wear a similar yellow dress when they're crowned winner), but isn't a play-by-play. As director Gerardo Naranjo explained to Indiewire, Zuniga's recollection of the actual events was too inconsistent. “We met her, we interviewed her, but we found out we didn’t want to tell her story, because she told a crazy story full of lies," Naranjo said. Instead, Miss Bala borrows from the dynamics in Zúñiga's story: How she was represented in the media, how she fell from grace, her degree of complicity.
The 2019 version of Miss Bala puts a unique spin on the story, but in doing so distances Miss Bala from the long history of Mexican-born pageant queens being drawn into cartels. Gloria, ever cunning, plays both the DEA and the cartel in order to save Suzu. This Miss Bala turns Gloria into an empowering heroine who can outwit a cartel, whereas the previous version's Laura is a woman who, in face of senseless, overwhelming violence, is left without options.