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Diana Layton, 21, a member of a right-wing paramilitary group since the age of 12, won the pageant.

helkin rene diaz The Globe and Mail

The inmates have been training for months. The battleground - a courtyard in a women's prison - is ready for the biggest showdown of the year that pits assassins, drug mules and former illegal combatants against each other for one thing incarceration hasn't denied them: the chance to be queen.

As a former drug-trafficker dressed as a mermaid covered in gold body paint is paraded on a stretcher by her cellmates to the stage, there is little question that in a country obsessed with beauty-queen competitions, the annual pageant at Bogota's Good Shepherd prison is the most unusual.

For the participants, the pageant offers an escape from the monotony of prison life, the chance to feel alive and get an injection of self-worth absent in many of their lives.

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"The fact that they made a mistake in their lives doesn't mean they aren't allowed to be a human being or feel like a woman," said Virginia Camacho, secretary of the prison and the pageant's co-ordinator.

Salsa music burst through the normally grim interior of the prison as elaborate floats made their way to a stage surrounded by hundreds of screaming inmates cheering for their cellblock. Besides choosing an overall beauty queen, the competition, which runs three days over one week, chooses the best cellblock. Each is given the task of representing a theme or region of Colombia and is judged on creativity, dramaturgy and choreography.

Diana Layton, 21, comes to her elected position as queen of Cellblock No. 4 with a raft of leadership experience. Ms. Layton joined a right-wing paramilitary when she was 12. By the end of her eight years as a member of a death squad, she had been a squadron commander and the No. 2 instructor at a clandestine training camp for a faction 3,000-men strong.

"I came from a place where you had to act like a man. I walked in rubber boots, wore camouflage, and carried a machine gun," says Ms. Layton, scantily clad in a bikini top and bottom covered with dangling plastic gold medallions.

"To feel so feminine preparing for the competition is so nice. I feel beloved and admired," she said as she peeled off a golden fake eyelash, one of several details of her costume depicting India Catalina, an indigenous woman from Colombia's Atlantic coast who worked with the Spanish conquistadores.

The pageant, held every year in September, honours not only the Virgin of Mercedes, patron saint of prisons, but the 1,400 inmates here. Makeup artists are brought in, musicians play salsa, mariachi and vallenato to the crowd, and designers from some of the country's most important pageants help the inmates develop costumes.

"With this pageant, it's like an opportunity to re-create myself," Ms. Layton says.

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Perhaps more than anything, the pageant lets some inmates present a "new face" to the world, as Ms. Layton calls it, and be judged on different criteria than the crimes that landed them here.

There are nine cellblocks with anywhere from 100 to 250 women. Each cellblock selects one representative to be its candidate for beauty queen.

Karina Lopez, the queen of Cellblock No. 9, otherwise known as the "Punishment Cellblock," says the pageant takes a great deal of intellectual, emotional and physical preparation.

"Not just anyone can represent their cellblock," she says. Ms. Lopez, 23, who is serving a six-year sentence for drug-trafficking, has been training since July. She has been studying history, because she expected the judges to ask questions dealing with Colombia's bicentennial celebrations, and doing stomach exercises.

As chaotic as the pageant can be, it can also bring calm to a motley crew of women. When prison officials wanted to limit the pageant to the cellblock competition and do away with making a queen last year, the prison's director, Magnolia Angulo Acevedo, was faced with protests and a near riot.

"We didn't have a choice but to keep the competition for beauty queen," she says. It was a decision in which Ms. Angulo was happy to let the inmates run the prison. She said that peace comes with the chaos of the pageant: "There's more harmony, they work in teams, they don't have time to look for problems."

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Giving the inmates a beauty pageant is to let them take part in a national obsession. Towns can shut down during local pageants and television ratings during Miss Colombia week spike to levels seen only during World Cup Soccer.

"Beauty pageants are everything in this country," said Alex Lopez, a judge who works with vulnerable populations of women. "For a women to become queen of the prison is the best thing that could happen to her."

In some cases, that's no exaggeration. Inmates hold the belief that she who wins the crown will also win liberty. With prison officials able to recommend early releases based on good behaviour, Ms. Angulo confirms it's happened.

With that in mind, and if confidence is any measure, Ms. Lopez might walk out of these prison doors sooner than her cellmates. Why does she think she will win?

"Because I act like a queen."

But for Ms. Lopez, her wish for a crown was not to be. Thursday night's winner was Ms. Layton - who won a gift bag and a tiara.

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