Pubdate: Thu, 23 Jul 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Booth, Staff Writer


Mormon Clans In Mexico Find Themselves Targets Of The

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 Diaz, 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 Gonzalez, blamed the group La
Linea, the Line, the armed enforcement wing of former police officers
and gunmen that works for the Juarez cartel. A few months ago,
Gonzalez said La Linea was an exhausted remnant of dead-enders whose
ranks had been decimated by infighting and arrests.

After Gonzalez 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 Linea."
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." 
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