Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fighting back: To avoid falling victim of a vicious drug war, some resort to taking up arms

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.


  1. Aim straight, aim true, shoot to kill.... Do not let them get the drop on you, do not hesitate... Go with your gut instinct and pull the trigger, if you have any doubts keep pulling the trigger... Its up to you to protect yourself and your loved ones...

  2. Those animals that killed Alvaro Sandoval has brought shame upon Mexico and its people... People such as that are scum of the earth and are possessed by an evil demon and the ONLY cure is for the to be killed, that is the only way to stop their violence. Stand up proud Mexican people and kill the demons that are ruining your beautiful country!

  3. Everyone in Mexico needs a gun maybe some of this criminals will be killed faster.

  4. seems like it's the ranchers from small towns who are the brave ones who are trying to protect their properties. to me, this is good news. in mexico, you are forced to protect yourself or become a slave to a cartel society.

    many more good people will die but i hope it's at least fighting back.

  5. The modern idea is that the public should be unarmed the govt will provide security,retirement,medical care,food,education,a home,utilitys supplement. Those who call themselves progressives have no concept that there are self sufficient people,and people who live in countrys where the govt can not provide ANYTHING, so why do Progressives have such a problem with people having guns. HORAY for the responsible people in Mexico who choose to defend themselves, as crazy as it sounds to the left MORE GUNS LESS CRIME this is a fact.

  6. Yeah, but where the hell do we go to buy a firearm here in Mexico. I could buy one in the US but wouldn't want to risk taking it across the border even though I'm pretty sure there's a 99% chance I would not get caught.

    Seriously, I would purchase some if I only knew where.

  7. @7.37, just wait for a nearby shootout and lift one off a dead sicario.

  8. Join a gun club, they'll help you. If there's not one in your area, contact the nearest one and ask them how they got it started. Ask people you know. Hopefully there are gun shops on the border who cater to Mexicans who want to protect themselves.

    Maybe in the meantime a chance to get one from a dead sicario will present itself... Go online.

  9. 7:35 pm...your "facts" are completely without merit.

    Fact: Canada has 1/100th the gun crimes than the US and there are way fewer guns. Same with the UK, France, Germany, Australia and the list goes on and on.

    Fact: You are 1200 times more likely to be killed when there is a gun in the home

    Fact: this issue is NOT simple and cannot be solved simply with more guns. Or more jobs. Or more social assistance.

    This is a very entrenched, complex problem that has socioeconomic elements, political elements, cultural issues. The endemic corruption that exists at all levels of government. All of these things play a part. You can't fix one without dealing with the others.

    "Progressives" as you call them, are not pounding the table about fewer guns in a warzone like Mexico. But in the US, Canada & Europe we have systems in place to prevent corruption and the need for weapons designed only to kill people are really not needed in civil society. This isn't the wild west.

    You need to actually find some supportable facts before you spew your uninformed opinion

  10. @ 9:45
    Not the original Anon, but Mexico IS the fucking Wild West now. He wasn't talking about our comfortable, advanced homes. He was talking about places like Nigeria, now Libya, Iraq, and now Mexico. Every time I go to BDN or this site, there is always news. Every day. A new shootout. Another kidnapping. Some extortion decap's here. These fucks even had the smugness to videotape themselves cutting a guy to pieces. While you might be right in some regard, the best choice is to arm the innocent to the teeth. Call it propaganda, but the only good narco is a dead one.

  11. 8:57

    Umm, I don't know if you've kept up with current events but it is the wild west in Mexico. Jesus. I'm a lefty, but anti-gun so-called progressives who cannot respect one of the bill of rights is no progressive at all in my book.

  12. After reading this article, it occured to me that a majority of small arms being smuggled into Mexico from the U.S.A., are being brought over for resale to otherwise law abiding Mexican citizens who need them out of necissity as a counter to the violence prone criminal cartels.

    Prohibition of firearms ownership by the Mexican goverment seems to create the black market for weapons, just as the US prohibition on recreational drugs creates another.

    Chicken or egg anyone?

    Let the people in both countries be responsibile for their health and security and there will be less bloodshed all around, but then, the security state apparatus in both nations will be unecessary, and we can't have that, can we?

  13. @9:45, your a kool aid drinking scumbag, youstatistics are nonsense and we know it, are you really that stupid? Just living on mexico your probably 1200% more likely to be killed. And your worried about responsible adults bearing arms to protect themselves? GUNS DONT KILL PEOPLE STUPID, PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE..get yoir facts straight before puking them on infomed readers, why dont you tell people about how washington d.c had the highest murder and rape rate in the country and the reason why is because the morons like you banned guns, so only the criminals had them and they knew it.

  14. Hello progressive, Look at the UK and Canada is this is what you want? Legalize drugs outlaw guns. What I said is More guns in the hands of responsible law abiding citizens,= less crime. The State can not do everything,UK and Canada exhibit A.

  15. March 7, 2011 8:57 PM

    With that said, the gun control bill passed in the clinton era was suppose to stop crime, and it is a fact that crime stayed the same. What you have to understand about gun control is that the only people that it hurts are law abiding citizens that don't want to be criminals. Sure you can ban all guns in the US but remember that criminals don't check their laws and what they can and can't do. It's obvious cause look at how many people get charged with a felony of some sort. The only law abiding gun owners that stand up for our right to bear arms when they search every home to make sure there are no guns will be made to look bad when they stand up for our rights. The media and government will make them look like psychopathic, baby killing loons. And as far as Mexican citizens owning guns, I welcome the idea. Look at how many people are able to save themselves of some sort of crime when they are armed. If the Mexican people really wanted to stop being victims they really need to push for better gun rights than what they already have.

  16. 9:45

    with all do respect... u bring up good points, but as others have stated (and not in a very eloquent fashion) these facts you speak of are great... but do little to solve the violence in Mexico.

    Yes there should be more schools, jobs and social programs... but the effects of these things take a long time, and in the meanwhile, a .45 cal would make me feel a WHOLE lot safer than a school voucher...

    Not putting down what you said, but I'm just sayin... the real world don't work that way.

  17. @ Smurf

    Great response Smurf, the .45 cal VS voucher made me yell a "Hell Yeah!!!"


  18. Furthermore, what "Civil" society do you live in? Fantasy Island was just a TV show. Mexico is the POSTER child for a why a Nation cannot, should not prohibit citizens from bearing arms against all enemies, foreign and domestic. 99% of their issues are domestic. Hell, even badass people are worried to go into Mexico. Look, 99.9% of gun owning, gun toting citizens DO NOT WANT TO SHOOT SOMEONE. That is the bare facts. I have a buddy that his family owns a pawn shop, he walks in, guy has a gun pulled on his mother and father. He is a concealed carrier. Guess what? His mother and father are alive, bad guy is dead, and he has to live with that fact the rest of his life and at times, it does haunt him. You know what helps him get through it? The hugs he gets from his mother and father. I ask him if you had to do it again? He actually says, I don`t know, I just don`t know. So, majority of folks don`t want, have no desire, aren`t fantazing of shooting someone. But, my wife and children acutally sleep better at night knowing my 9mm is tucked safely by the edge of my bed. Little do they realize that if something were to happen, it`s on me to have to shoot someone. Little do I want to do that, but , my family is not about to be harmed one bit. I just will have to deal with the repercussions of my actions afterwards, but my family will still be alive. I can see the "progressive" view point of "Why can`t we all just get along"? Hell, I prescribe to that motto. Problem is, their are bad people in the world. People that missed the morality bus. All the talking in the world isn`t going to change their heads. Something is wrong with them, and sometimes you must face violence with violence. In a perfect world, we would not need a weapon one, but this world is getting more violent instead of less. Not just by gun violence. Watch a few videos on these sites that are out there. People beating others to death with bats and setting them on fire while a crowd watches, laughing and taking cell phone pics. And you want to disarm me? Not in my lifetime.

  19. @ Mar 14 9:07AM
    lots of bad info in this article.
    It is not impossible to get a gun permit in Mx if you obtain the legal calibers. Much like our system to apply to the army which processes the application and takes apx 6-8 weeks. All arms are only availble thru the army. The problem is the low calibers. I know many people in Mx now with hand guns as well as there 22 shotguns usually used for hunting. AMericans can take these calibers too Mexico as well and do, especially to hunt.

    Article 10 of the mexican constituion is the right for citizens to bear arms. It is NOT unlawful for cititzens to have guns for protection.

    “The inhabitants of the United Mexican States have the right to possess arms in their homes for their security and legitimate defense with the exception of those prohibited by federal law and of those reserved for the exclusive use of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard. .”

    Generally, citizens are restricted by law to:

    Handguns of .380 Auto or .38 Special revolvers or smaller in either case except the .357 Magnum, ,.357 SIG or 9x19mm Parabellum
    Shotguns of 12 gauge or smaller, with barrels longer than 25 inches, and
    Rifles bolt action and semi-auto.

    Not great but not absolute ban.

  20. If I was those ranchers I would definitely be packing several weapons including either an AR-10 (.308) or an AK-47 in 7.62 x 39mm with several hi-cap mags, a Saiga 12 Gauge Shotgun for the house with several 20 round drum mags, as well as several large caliber semiauto pistols in .357 Sig, .40 or .45 cal also with hi-cap mags! The sicarios are packing military style high power weapons so you would need to do likewise if your going to stand a chance in a firefight against them? It would also be advantageous to form an armed group as it's easy to attack a solitary man vs a group of armed men? Mexico will need to take up arms if they really want to take their country back from the pandilleros?

  21. Great discussion and alot of valid points

  22. Post all the points you want,i got no problem with trying to make the world a better place.But someone banging on about guns and crime,i take the point of one of the comments above,most law abiding people with guns are not actively seeking to shoot a stranger.This world is a dangerous place,some places a lot more dangerous than others.Point is,if i lived in a dangerous country where all the criminals have guns,guess what?Bet your ass i would get a gun,a lot of posters on here,have no concept of what it means to be a decent law abiding citizen,living in a country with fuckers running around with AKs with impunity.


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