2 Americans from Mormon sect slain in Mexico

Houston Chronicle/July 7, 2009

Mexico City - A top member of a breakaway Mormon sect was dragged from his home by marauders and killed early Tuesday in a village founded and named for the American families that settled the remote community in the northern Mexican desert.

Benjamin LeBaron, 31, and Luis Widmar, 29, a brother-in-law who tried to help him, were grabbed by at least 15 commandos shortly after midnight in Colonia LeBaron, which is about 200 miles southeast of El Paso, witnesses said.

The bodies of the men, both naturalized U.S. citizens with five children each, were found nearby shortly afterward, each shot several times in the head, Brent LeBaron, a cousin of Benjamin who lives in the village, said by telephone.

Benjamin LeBaron had led successful protests earlier this year to free his kidnapped brother and demand police protection for their isolated rural community.

"We are fighting a cause that should be heard throughout the world," said Brent LeBaron, who was helping build the slain men's coffins Tuesday and prepare for their burials.

"We have two martyrs on our hands, two men who are completely innocent taken out of their houses and killed.

"We don't know what to do," he said. "We can't bear arms. We have no way of legally protecting ourselves."

Attacked cousin's house

The attackers struck his cousin's house as the family slept trying to knock down the front door and smashing its windows, Brent LeBaron said. A panicked Benjamin LeBaron phoned two brothers-in-law for help.

But after the attackers threatened to throw a grenade into the house, LeBaron opened the door.

The gangsters beat Le-Baron and one threatened to rape his wife in front of their children before carrying their victims away, Brent LeBaron said.

As the commandos left they fired assault rifles at the second brother-in-law, who was wounded with shrapnel in the back.

Benjamin LeBaron and other village leaders had led hundreds of people in May to Chihuahua City to demand government action in the abduction of Eric LeBaron, Benjamin's 16-year-old brother. The kidnappers were demanding $1 million in ransom, but the LeBaron community had decided to instead pressure for the boys's release, which occurred in mid-May.

"We're fighting as a community," Brent LeBaron said. "Standing up against extortionists and kidnappers. But we have never done anything against the drug lords. We stay away from the drug war because we know it's a battle that we can't win."

A placard left with the bodies said the killings were in retribution for the June arrests by federal forces of 25 men in a distant village accused of running narcotics.

"These guys blame our protest for pressuring the government to act and do something," said Clary Jones, who helped organize the protest to free Benjamin's brother, Eric, in May and who is directly mentioned in the warning left with the men's bodies. "It's a message from them."

Hundreds of soldiers as well as state and federal police swarmed into Colonia LeBaron on Tuesday in search of the attackers.

Chihuahuan state officials promised to bring the killers to justice.

The village of Colonia Le-Baron, was founded by Benjamin's great-grandfather, Alma Dayer LeBaron, and other ancestors who broke with the Church of the Latter Day Saints in the 1920s over its ban on polygamy and other doctrinal differences.

Practicing faith

More than 900 people live in LeBaron today, practicing their faith and working at farming and construction. Some village men unofficially practice polygamy, which is illegal in Mexico, as it is in the United States. Many villagers are dual U.S. and Mexican citizens.

Narcotics production and trafficking flourishes throughout Chihuahuan state and the rugged Sierra Madre range than runs along its western flanks. And as elsewhere across Mexico, kidnappers and extortionists are targeting LeBaron and nearby communities, dubbed the "Corridor of Terror."

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