Brothers campaign for gun rights in tiny Mexican town

Original Story Via:

Only criminals are armed now, they complain

LeBARON, Mexico – The LeBaron brothers, Alex and Max, walked outside their sprawling ranch and pointed to the spot where they traded fire with gunmen who pinned them down until both sides reached a truce.

“Had we not been able to defend ourselves that afternoon with our own weapons, I don’t know that we’d be standing here today,” said Alex LeBaron, a state legislator who is leading a campaign to allow residents to arm themselves.

“Without our guns, we stood no chance,” added Max. “We would have been like sitting ducks at target practice.”

It turned out the gunmen were actually soldiers. These days, it’s hard to tell, because just about everyone in this crime-ridden area is heavily armed – everyone, that is, except for regular residents. That makes the town of LeBaron an appropriate place for a gun debate, particularly after the school shootings in Connecticut.

This community in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, whose residents have been victims of extortion, kidnappings and murder, is at the forefront of a movement to press the federal government to change laws that ban citizens from owning weapons unless they belong to a registered gun club. Currently, citizens who want to own a gun must buy it from the military, a long, bureaucratic process, or on the black market.

The LeBaron brothers were armed that day because they belong to a gun club and because they are members of a government-sanctioned militia set up to protect the community after a rash of crimes.

This community of about 1,000, just three hours from the Texas border, is home largely to Mormon farmers, many of them bilingual and dual citizens of the United States and Mexico. Many are related to one another through blood ties that go back decades.

Mexico has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the world, but an overwhelming arsenal of illegal guns is readily available to drug cartels battling federal forces and rival criminal groups. The drug war has left more than 60,000 people dead and 25,000 missing since former President Felipe Calderón sent federal troops to reclaim territories from drug traffickers shortly after taking office in 2006.

Few communities have been harder hit than this region, home to chile, apple and pecan growers and cheese makers – and a smuggling route, coveted by traffickers, that leads into the United States through Texas.

“We don’t have a problem with jackrabbits,” Max said. “We have a problem with sicarios – hit men. People show up here in fake police, soldier uniforms. You shoot first and then ask questions.”

“The right to bear arms is the best thing Americans have going for them,” said cousin Brent LeBaron Jr. “And here in Mexico, we have high hopes that we, too, can someday defend ourselves from traffickers armed to the teeth.”

Members of an offshoot of the traditional Mormon church, these farmers are like everyday Mexicans anywhere. They drink beer, curse and enjoy long greetings and goodbyes. Yet vestiges of their American ancestry remain intact, including their determination to hold the government accountable – something considered rare in this country until recently – and the right to bear arms.

Three years ago, cousin Benjamin LeBaron stood up after his younger brother was kidnapped and extortionists demanded $1 million. Benjamin led a peaceful movement through the streets of Chihuahua state, calling on authorities to do more to protect residents from what he called madmen who had empowered themselves across the country.

One morning, gunmen came to his home and threatened to rape his wife and harm his children unless he gave them his guns, but he didn’t have any. They took him away. Benjamin and Luis Widmar, a brother-in-law who tried to intervene, were beaten, and their bodies were later found, shot in the head.

Their killings led many in the community to take a stance similar to that of Second Amendment advocates in the United States, but there is another side to the debate here. Many blame the U.S. gun and drug culture for the mayhem in Mexico and are adamantly opposed to more guns. Nearly 70 percent of guns seized in Mexico originated in the U.S., according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“I don’t want to run around like Pancho Villa – bang, bang,” said Ricardo Paisano, who owns a fruit juice stand in LeBaron. Paisano once lived in Arizona and described the scene there as the “the wild, wild West, where everyone was armed like crazies. We need more jobs, not more guns.”

Others, like Daniel Madrid Mendoza, 28, a member of the gun club near Casas Grandes, disagreed.

“I like guns because I like hunting,” he said. “But also I don’t think it’s right that only the bad guys have access to guns. We should all have the right to defend ourselves.”

Alex LeBaron, a 32-year-old Chihuahua state congressman with national aspirations, is haunted by the memory of his cousin “Benji” and of his own father, who was killed in a carjacking. Alex was educated in New Mexico and served in the U.S. Navy. Giving Mexicans the right to bear arms is among the issues he is most passionate about, one that he says will make Mexicans more individualistic.

“When Benji was killed, the first thing you think is, ‘We gotta get out of here,’ and yet at the moment, I realized I had nowhere to run, nor did I want to go anywhere else,” he said. “This is home. This is where I was born and will one day die.”