TLAXCALA (AFP).- As two armored military vehicles patrol the streets of Tlaxcala, workers unload a pick-up truck full of enormous traditional masks for this lawless Mexican region's explosively colorful carnival.
Tlaxcala, which sits a two-hour's drive east of Mexico City, is in the middle of a region that has become one of the Mexican authorities' biggest security headaches, controlled by criminal gangs that thrive on sex trafficking and stealing gasoline.
But it is also home to a thrillingly photogenic carnival, where revelers famously sport towering traditional headdresses as they party through the night.
"The carnival was introduced by the Spanish in the 17th century," said the head of cultural programs at Tlaxcala town hall, Dario Lemus Tlapale.
"But the authorities back then insisted we couldn't make fun of public figures."
Blending indigenous Mexican and Spanish traditions, the carnival evolved into an event where mocking the European colonizers was elevated to an art form.
With its feather-topped masks that reach several meters (yards) tall, sumptuous hand-embroidered cloths decorated with small skulls, European-style costumes and elegant parasols, the carnival is a celebration of the cultural collisions that have shaped the region.
"The costumes represent a fusion of European and pre-Hispanic cultures. The top part of every costume is inherited from pre-Hispanic culture, and the bottom part from European culture," Tlapale told AFP.
The masks mostly sport beards resembling those of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. Others have a pencil-thin English-style mustache.
"That was introduced to mock the English, who arrived later to install the railroad here," said Tlapale.
There are 15 different types of costume in all. Carnival participants, who dance in pairs before the crowd, often completely redo their outfits each year.
"I'm very proud to wear this costume," said Arturo, 23, a civil engineer.
But "it's very physical. These outfits can weigh 25 to 30 kilos (55 to 65 pounds)."
Arturo said it takes "enthusiasm and will" to be a carnival dancer, since costumes can cost between $3,000 and $5,000.
"I make my own every year," said Melani Mitchel, a 15-year-old dancer.
"I make three models, one for each of my appearances."
Hotbed of crime
Away from the festivities though, a more sordid reality rules in the region.
In the nearby town of Tenancingo, girls the same age as Melani are forced into prostitution by gangs that specialize in sex trafficking.
The ones who manage to escape often tell similar stories.
"She meets a young man and falls in love. They get married, she has a child and then he forces her into prostitution by threatening to beat the baby," said a local woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisals.
Tenancingo's sex trafficking gangs have been known to send their victims as far away as the United States and even New Zealand, according to investigators.
Then there is the "red triangle," near the town of Tepeaca, where two criminal gangs with ties to drug cartels are thriving on the business of stealing fuel from state oil company Pemex's pipelines.
Puncturing the pipelines is a risky but lucrative affair: "picadores," or pipeline-tappers, make an estimated $10,000 a month.
Holding the siphon earns up to $8,000 a month.
The "huachicoleros," as these fuel thieves are known, then sell the gasoline and diesel in broad daylight through black-market dealers and sometimes even regular gas stations.
Pemex estimated last year it had lost some $2.4 billion to fuel thieves since 2010.
A local culture celebrating the exploits of the "huachicoleros" has sprung up, with songs and even a saint dedicated to them -- the latter represented with a plastic jug and tube in his hands.
But that is one culture that has not been incorporated into the Tlaxcala carnival.
© Agence France-Presse