Ambushed by a Drug War
Mormon Clans in Mexico Find Themselves Targets of the Cartels
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.