A 20-year-old man from the LaBaron community looks across his ranch with his new .22-caliber rifle. He says owning a gun on the ranch isn't uncommon, but using guns for protection against others is new. (Vanessa Monsisvais / El Paso Times)
by Adriana Gómez Licón \ El Paso Times
On the ranch lands near the U.S. border, people no longer take security for granted and have turned to weapons to stave off drug thugs.
Teachers, ranchers, town officials, business owners and lawyers in rural towns of northwest Chihuahua near New Mexico have armed themselves.
Legal or not, they are ready to use their guns for protection.
In a country caught in the clutches of a vicious drug war, people have decided it's better to fight than to fall victim to the violence, which has claimed about 35,000 people nationally.
It is estimated that 15.5 million weapons -- including small-caliber handguns, shotguns and semiautomatic rifles -- are owned by residents of Mexico while the army and the police have just under 1 million weapons at their disposal, according to a organization in Australia that tracks weapons worldwide.
Fed up with chronic violence, some Mexican residents might be ready to push their government to make weapons more easily available.
"I don't go around without my gun anymore," said an official in a nearby town. In November, gunmen shot him in the chest as he drove along a highway. Because of the small size of his town, he did not want to be identified.
The man keeps a pistol in a drawer at his office and another in his truck's glove compartment. In January, the government issued him a license to carry a loaded .45-caliber gun.
Many others share the town official's fear.
Life in areas southwest of Juárez has been cruel in the past two years. Besides slayings, a string of extortions, kidnappings and armed invasions of businesses and homes have taken them by surprise, many said. Fearful, these residents said they can't just sit and watch while criminals attack callously.
Guns are necessary, they said.
Having weapons for self-defense is a familiar concept for the United States.
But in Mexico, it is close to impossible to obtain a permit to carry a gun. People need a license just to own any firearm. The process is burdensome. The punishment for illegal possession is severe, including prison terms of up to seven years.
The only lawful gun store is in Mexico City, far from these towns east of the Sierra Madre.
"You can have a gun only when it is not classified exclusively for the use of the military and when it is registered," said Gustavo Nevarez, an attorney in Nuevo Casas Grandes. "Nobody registers them, though."
Less than one-third of the guns owned by Mexican people are registered, according to Gun Policy, an organization at the University of Sydney in Australia that gathers guns statistics and facts across the world.
The agency that keeps the gun registry is the Mexican military, which also holds a monopoly on gun sales and manages the sole store.
Military officials in Mexico City did not respond to a request for an interview.
The army conducts criminal background and psychological tests before anyone buys or registers guns. For a gun license, a person must provide the military with a dozen documents to show a source of legitimate income and a genuine reason for wanting to have a weapon, such as hunting or personal protection.
For a person to carry a concealed gun, the Mexican army issues an annual permit.
However, many of those interviewed said that only affluent people or politicians can obtain such permits because they can afford them and can bribe their way into acquiring one. Some residents in nearby Colonia LeBaron said they paid as much as $10,000 to get a permit.
It was not always that way.
Initially, Article 10 of the Mexican Constitution of 1857 allowed people to have and bear guns.
As the Mexican Revolution was coming to an end, the Mexican government passed a new constitution in 1917. The same article no longer guaranteed the right to bear arms. It also prohibited civilians from having army weapons.
"It was partly intended to reduce the number of rebellions," said David Shirk, the director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute, who specializes in Mexican politics.
Almost a century later, Mexico's challenges are heavily armed drug cartels with weapons, many of which are smuggled from the U.S. In 2008, homicide rates began to skyrocket -- especially in cities like Juárez, where about 7,800 people have been killed in the past two years in a turf war between the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels.
It is a reality that Alex LeBaron, a state representative in northwestern Chihuahua, wants the government to confront. Domestic gun laws have remained a taboo subject among Mexican politicians for decades.
LeBaron believes times have changed, and he wants Mexico to revisit gun politics.
"The right to bear arms is an important matter we shouldn't be afraid to discuss," LeBaron said. "People are armed in their homes. This is not a secret."
The eight municipalities LeBaron represents surround Juárez and have been hit hard by cartel violence.
"People won't allow more kidnappings," he said. "They are determined to defend themselves."
LeBaron was raised in Colonia LeBaron, a polygamous community of breakaway Mormons, settled in the 1940s in the municipality of Galeana. He does not practice the religion and has married only once.
LeBaron identifies with the U.S. Constitution's 2nd Amendment, which gives people the right to keep and bear arms. His English is flawless.
He served four years in the U.S. Navy, went to Roswell's New Mexico Military Institute to get his high-school education and received his bachelor's degree in international business from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
"We should let the criminals know that every citizen has a right to bear arms," he said.
Other signs that show Mexican people are becoming more gun-friendly are web forums on gun rights and shooting clubs.
Web forums such as Armed Mexico advise people who have been victims of recent attacks to purchase guns by joining shooting clubs. Shooting clubs have surged in farming towns in northern Mexico.
From a two-way road that connects Nuevo Casas Grandes to the LeBaron colony, white letters painted on a desert hill read Club Paquimé, where a rifle club meets weekly.
Another rifle club is forming in Galeana, where former mayor Vern Ariel Ray lives in fear.
"Yes, we want target practice but deep inside, we all know that we want that gun for protection," Ray said.
Ray, who was mayor from 2007 to 2010, said he was threatened after gunmen chased two of his sons home in early 2009. The men opened fire, but his sons were not injured.
Then Galeana's police chief told him he was receiving calls that "the mayor was next." In November 2008, gunmen had killed Miguel Angel Mota Ayala, the previous police chief.
Ray, who has dual nationality, took his family to the United States and came back, changed his address and governed while in hiding for six months.
Now Ray, owner of a hotel, impatiently awaits for the new shooting club to start.
Inside the Galeana district, many fundamentalist Mormons who raise cattle and grow fruits are armed in the LeBaron colony.
English is the language of choice for most ranchers who have dual nationalities. The men work in the United States finishing drywall to bring money back home to buy land.
A history of violence runs in the LeBaron family, stretching back several decades.
Today, the LeBarons are no strangers to the wave of extortions, kidnappings and murders.
Alex LeBaron's father, Daniel Dayer LeBaron, was killed in 2005 in a carjacking attempt in Santa Ana, a city 60 miles south of the Arizona border in Sonora.
More recently, two of Alex LeBaron's cousins were victims of narco attacks.
In May 2009, Eric LeBaron, then 16, was kidnapped and released eight days later after the community mobilized to protest in Chihuahua City.
In July 2009, gunmen killed Eric LeBaron's brother, Benjamin LeBaron, who had become a leader in the protests. Another villager, Luis Widmar, was killed in the same attack.
"What happened to Benjamin and Luis was a revealing moment for me," said Alex LeBaron, as his eyes watered.
The killings prompted the townsfolk to go on a gun shopping spree, said Alex LeBaron.
For the most part, colony residents have been quick on the trigger.
In October 2009, a 10-minute gunbattle erupted between the LeBarons and the Mexican army.
Soldiers arrived at Alex LeBaron's house while his family was having a party. Not knowing who the soldiers were, the LeBarons prepared their AR-15 rifles and .44-caliber Magnum revolvers to defend themselves. A member of the LeBarons shot into the air, the soldiers began firing right away, and the ranchers shot back.
A soldier was killed, another one was injured and two of Alex LeBaron's brothers were taken to jail and charged with murder and illegal possession of weapons. A federal judge dismissed the charges because it appeared the Mexican Army had tampered with evidence, Alex LeBaron said. He said he did not fire his gun in the shoot-out.
Colony residents have other ways of defending themselves.
On a recent day, Nefi LeBaron, uncle of Alex, Eric and Benjamin, drove his truck up the rocky, zigzagging path to the top of a mountain in the colony.
The view is striking. Pecan orchards are divided by dirt roads that wind toward the Sierra Madre outlined against the bright blue sky. An occasional eagle screeches.
At the top of the mountain, the LeBarons built a wooden hut to watch for suspicious visitors. Alternating shifts, the LeBarons guard their colony with night-vision binoculars and two-way radios. Their community police force was formed after the 2009 murders of Widmar and Benjamin LeBaron.
"We created a working strategy," Nefi LeBaron said.
Perhaps the LeBarons' U.S. origins give this community a pro-gun mindset.
Brent LeBaron, is critical of the Mexican gun laws, as is his cousin, the politician Alex LeBaron.
"The bad guys will think twice about attacking a civilian who they know has the right to bear arms," Brent LeBaron said.
Not so far away from the colony, other people are breaking gun laws to protect their homes.
The town of Ascensión formed a vigilante group after an angry mob mobilized to beat two 17-year-old boys to death in September.
Police said the boys had kidnapped a 17-year-old girl from a restaurant. Abductions had become as frequent as three times a week in the town of 9,000.
One of the members of the group opened a dresser drawer where he hides two handguns. The man, a rancher, did not want his family to be identified.
He took out a silver .38-caliber Colt gun. He also keeps a 9mm handgun, which the government prohibits.
"Now my wife knows how to use them," he said of his wife, an elementary school teacher.
The man also pulled out a shotgun from under the couple's bed.
"Here, it's like the Wild West. The one who doesn't have a gun is against the norm," he said. "Even the priest keeps a pistol."
The schoolteacher still lives terrified by an attack her daughter suffered. Her body tenses up when she shares the story.
Her daughter, who now goes to school in El Paso, managed to escape a group of criminals who were chasing her and pushing her car off the highway a week before the September killings.
Months after their daughter's close call and the killings of the alleged kidnappers, the parents said they feel more secure.
While people are buying guns and ammunition for self-protection near the U.S. border, tracking these weapons' origins is not a priority for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency has been tracing arms recovered from crime scenes in Mexico. The focus has been to stop the flow of arms from U.S. gun dealers to Mexican drug dealers.
"What we try to do is prevent guns from falling into the cartels' hands," said Tom Crowley, a spokesman for ATF's Dallas region.
Reports by Stratfor, a global intelligence company based in Austin, have documented that cartels are not the only ones interested in high-caliber weapons now, and northwest Chihuahua is not the only place with a demand.
"I met people and talked to people in different places in cities like Torreón, border cities like Juárez, even in Mexico City who are arming themselves because of fear," said Scott Stewart, Stratfor's vice president for tactical intelligence.
Stewart said that for a long time northern Mexico has had a gun culture similar to Texas and Arizona, where ranchers protect their property from trespassers. But drug violence has changed the feelings of gun owners in Mexico.
"You have your cowboys; you have the hunters," he said. "Recently people have become very scared. It's ordinary people -- business people."
It is not clear whether this trend will yield a change in gun policies.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón has focused on pressuring the U.S. government to stem the flow of firearms south of the border.
Alex LeBaron said Chihuahua's congress may challenge the federal government by proposing changes in gun laws in the near future.
"I have been talking to representatives. There are several of us who are interested in this," he said.'
Analysts, political scientists and lawyers said they doubt gun laws will change in Mexico soon.
"I don't think they have to change the gun laws," Trans-Border Institute's Shirk said. "It is simply a question of how much the government wants to facilitate the access to guns."
Shirk said there is no evidence that honest citizens carrying guns would bring down crime in Mexico.
The recent tale of a resident in the border town of Palomas illustrated what happened to one person who used a gun to defend himself and his family.
When Alvaro Sandoval, 50, saw four gunmen about to break into his home on an early Sunday morning in January, he stood right by the door. The men knocked the door down, and Sandoval opened fire with his .380-caliber handgun. Sandoval killed three men. The fourth escaped.
It was a story of courage for about a week -- how a man stood his ground against four heavily armed criminals to protect his wife and young daughter. Two weeks later, other gunmen went back and killed Sandoval. This time, his wife, Griselda Pedroza, 35, attempted to repel the attack with a 9mm handgun and died while trying.