By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 23, 2009
COLONIA LEBARON, Mexico -- Mormon pioneer Alma Dayer LeBaron had a vision when he moved his breakaway sect of polygamists to this valley 60 years ago: His many children would live in peace and prosperity among the pretty pecan orchards they would plant in the desert.
Prosperity has come, but the peace has been shattered.
In the past three months, American Mormon communities in Mexico have been sucked into a dust devil of violence sweeping the borderlands. Their relative wealth has made them targets: Their telephones ring with threats of extortion. Their children and elders are taken by kidnappers. They have been drawn into the government's war with the drug cartels.
This month, a leader of their colony was abducted by heavily armed men dressed as police, then beaten and shot dead 10 minutes from town. Benjamin LeBaron, 31, whom everyone called Benji, had dared to denounce the criminals, while refusing to pay a $1 million ransom demanded by kidnappers who had grabbed his teenage brother from a family ranch in May.
Amid the blood and mesquite at the site of his last breath, Benjamin LeBaron's killers posted a sign that read: "This is for the leaders of LeBaron who didn't believe and who still don't believe."
"We're living in a war zone, but it's a war zone with little kids running all around in the yard," said Julian LeBaron, a brother of the slain leader. Like most members of the Mormon enclave, he has dual Mexican-American citizenship and speaks Spanish and English fluently.
These Mormons, some who swear and drink beer, are the latest collateral damage in the Mexican government's U.S.-backed war against criminal organizations.
Here in Chihuahua, the border state south of Texas and New Mexico, conditions are rapidly deteriorating. The violence has left more than 1,000 dead in Ciudad Juarez this year, even though the government has sent 10,000 troops and police officers into the city.
Increasingly the violence is moving from the big cities into the small, usually placid farm towns of the rugged desert mountains. Criminal bands have ambushed the governor's convoy along the highway, and they have assassinated local police at stop lights and political leaders at will. Gunmen executed the mayor of Namiquipa last week.
"The northeast of Chihuahua is now a zone of devastation," said Victor Quintana, a state lawmaker, who reports an exodus of business people fleeing kidnappers and farmers refusing to plant their crops because of extortion.
The columnist Alberto Aziz Nassif wrote in El Universal newspaper, "Chihuahua today is the emblem of a failed state, run by incompetent authorities who have little ability to protect the citizens."
Many of the Mormons have fled north to the United States, and Julian LeBaron said he fears for his life. He has reason. In Ciudad Juarez, a three-hour drive to the north, hand-painted banners were hung from overpasses last week threatening the extended clan.
"All we want to do is live in peace. We want nothing to do with the drug cartels. They can't be stopped. What we want is just to protect ourselves from being kidnapped and killed," said Marco LeBaron, a college student who came home for the funeral of his brother, the slain anti-crime activist. Marco LeBaron is one of 70 Mormons who have volunteered to join a rural police force to protect the town. The Mexican government has given them permission to arm themselves.Dragged Into Drug Fight
For all the violence swirling around them, the Mormons have mostly stayed out of the fight. Their ancestors first settled in Mexico in the 1880s, during the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz, who offered the religious outcasts refuge from the harassment and prosecution they faced in the United States for their polygamist lifestyles. Some men in Colonia LeBaron and surrounding towns continue to follow what early Mormon prophets called "the Principle," marrying multiple wives and having dozens of children, though the custom here is fading. Polygamy was banned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the official Mormon Church, in 1890.
The Mormon community based in Colonia LeBaron, numbering about 1,000, has one motel, two grocery stores and lots of schools. There are no ATMs and no liquor sales. Many Mormons are conspicuous not only for their straw-colored hair and pale skin, but also for their new pickup trucks, large suburban-style homes with green front lawns, and big tracts of land for their pecans and cattle. They are wealthy, by the standards of their poor Mexican neighbors. Most of the Mormon men make their money working construction jobs in the United States; a young Mormon might work 10 years hanging drywall in Las Vegas before he has enough money to buy a plot of land to start his own pecan orchard here.
The Mormons were dragged into the drug fight on May 2, when 16-year-old Eric LeBaron and a younger brother were hauling a load of fence posts in their truck to their father's ranch in the Sierra Madre. According to the family's account, five armed men seized Eric and told his brother to run home and tell his father to answer the telephone. When the kidnappers called, they told Joel LeBaron that if he ever wanted to see Eric again, he must pay them $1 million.
The next day, 150 men gathered at the church house in Colonia LeBaron to debate what to do. They had no confidence in the local police. One of their members, Ariel Ray, the mayor of nearby Galeana, reminded them that someone had put an empty coffin in the bed of his pickup. Some men argued that they should hire professional bounty hunters from the United States to get Eric back. Others wanted to form a posse.
"But we knew the last thing we could do was give them the money, or we would be invaded by this scum," Julian LeBaron said.
Another brother, Craig LeBaron, told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City: "If you give them a cookie, they'll want a glass of milk. If we don't make a stand here, it's only a matter of time before it's my kid."
A caravan of hundreds of the LeBaron Mormons, along with Mennonites and others, went to the state capital to protest the crime. This kind of public advocacy is almost unheard of among the Mexican Mormons, who keep to themselves. Led by Benjamin LeBaron, the protesters met with the governor and state attorney general, who quickly dispatched helicopters, police and soldiers to the area. The government forces erected roadblocks and searched the countryside.
Eric LeBaron was freed eight days after his abduction. His kidnappers simply told him to go home. But soon after, another member of the community, Meredith Romney, a 72-year-old bishop related to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was taken captive. The state governor sent Colombian security consultants to LeBaron. The Mormons, led by an increasingly public and outspoken Benjamin LeBaron, formed a group called SOS Chihuahua to organize citizens to defend themselves, report crimes and demand results from authorities. LeBaron was featured prominently in the local media. He gave a speech to a graduating class of police cadets. He staged rallies. He got noticed.Attack on Family Home
Early on July 7, four trucks loaded with men passed through a highway tollbooth, where they were recorded on videotape outside Galeana, where Benjamin LeBaron lived in a sprawling, new stucco home with his wife and five young children. Two trucks stopped at the cemetery outside town and waited. Two pickup trucks filled with 15 to 20 heavily armed men, wearing helmets, bulletproof vests and blue uniforms, came for LeBaron.
They smashed in his home's windows and shouted for him to open the door, as his terrified children cried inside, according to an account given by his brothers. LeBaron's brother-in-law Luis Widmar, 29, who lived across the street, heard the commotion and ran to his aid. Both men were beaten by the gunmen, who threatened to rape LeBaron's wife in front of her children unless the men revealed where LeBaron kept his arsenal of weapons.
"But he didn't have any, because I promise you, if he did, he would have used them to protect his family," Julian LeBaron said.
LeBaron and Widmar were shot in the head outside town. A banner was hung beside their bodies that blamed them for the arrest of 25 gunmen who were seized in June after terrorizing the town of Nicolas Bravo, where they burned down buildings and extorted from business owners. According to Mexican law enforcement officials, the gunmen are members of the Sinaloa drug cartel, which is fighting the Juarez cartel for billion-dollar cocaine-smuggling routes into El Paso.
After the men killed LeBaron and Widmar, a video camera captured their departure at the highway tollbooth -- the make, model and year of their vehicles and the license numbers, according to family members. There have been no arrests.
Who killed Benji LeBaron -- and why? These questions are difficult to answer in Mexico's drug war, and the unknowns fuel the fear of those left in Colonia LeBaron.
The state attorney general, Patricia González, blamed the group La Línea, the Line, the armed enforcement wing of former police officers and gunmen that works for the Juarez cartel. A few months ago, González said La Línea was an exhausted remnant of dead-enders whose ranks had been decimated by infighting and arrests.
After González said the Juarez cartel was responsible for the killings, banners appeared in Ciudad Juarez that read: "Mrs. Prosecutor, avoid problems for yourself, and don't blame La Línea." The message stated that the LeBaron killings were the work of the Sinaloa cartel. On Wednesday, another banner was hung from an overpass, suggesting that Benji LeBaron was a thief: "Ask yourself where did all his properties come from?"
At the LeBaron funeral, attended by more than 2,000 people, including the Chihuahua state governor and attorney general, Benji's uncle Adrian LeBaron said, "The men who murdered them have no children, no parents, no mother. They are the spawn of evil."