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Women's Prison Holds Beauty Pageant

LIMA, Peru (Sept. 29) - On a red-carpeted catwalk, an international line of elegantly dressed beauty contestants - all doing time for drug running - strutted into the night before an audience of Peruvian dignitaries.

Lee Hefegtz, a 20-year-old blonde Israeli awaiting sentence on drug trafficking charges, was the winner of this year's 10th annual beauty contest Tuesday night at Santa Monica Women's Prison in Lima's Chorrillos district.

Elisa Bareiro of Paraguay attends dress rehearsal in her red gown.

Belying a ''drug mule'' moniker used to refer to their crimes, Hefegtz and the other contestants were judged not only on their looks, but also on artistic ability, personality and poise strutting before the cameras.

''The objective is to promote re-socialization among the inmates and create space for recreation and companionship to help them raise self-esteem and get rid of stress,'' prison spokeswoman Maritza Otiniano told The Associated Press. ''At first many of them were a bit timid and didn't want to present themselves, but now more and more girls have signed up.''

She said preparations for the contest started three months ago with workshops for dance, theater, oratory skill and aerobics, as well as psychological therapy.

Good conduct and participation in the workshops are the requirements for joining the contest, which this year had 28 semifinalists.

Of the 15 finalists, 12 were foreigners.

Their stories are all-too similar, Otiniano said. Lured by the promise of easy money, they came to Peru to smuggle cocaine, mainly to the United States and Europe, only to be intercepted at Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport.

Of the 1,000 inmates, 83 percent are being held while they await sentence from Peru's sluggish court system, including 99 of the prison's 138 foreign prisoners.

Prison officials declined to provide personal information about the contestants. The Israeli Embassy in Lima confirmed Hefegtz was one of those awaiting sentence, but could not immediately provide more details.

09-29-04 2218EDT
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