Colonia LeBaron's residents, most of whom no longer practice polygamy and some of whom swear and drink beer, are the latest collateral damage in the U.S.-backed drug war.

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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 peace has been shattered.

The communities have been sucked into a dust devil of violence in the past three months. Their relative wealth has made them targets: Their telephones ring with extortion threats. Their children and elders are kidnapped. They have been drawn into the war against Mexico’s drug cartels.

A leader of their colony was abducted this month by heavily armed men dressed as police, then beaten and shot dead 10 minutes from town. Benjamin LeBaron, 31, known as 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, LeBaron’s killers posted a sign: “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 enclave, he has dual Mexican-American citizenship and speaks Spanish and English fluently.

Colonia LeBaron’s residents, most of whom no longer practice polygamy and some of whom swear and drink beer, are the latest collateral damage in the U.S.-backed drug war.

In Chihuahua state, bordering Texas and New Mexico, conditions are deteriorating rapidly. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ciudad Juárez this year, even though 10,000 government troops and police officers have been sent into the city.

The violence increasingly is moving into small, usually placid farm towns of the rugged desert mountains. Criminal bands have ambushed the governor’s convoy, 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 crops because of extortion.

Many residents have fled to the United States, and Julian LeBaron said he fears for his life. He has reason. In Ciudad Juárez, a three-hour drive to the north, 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. Marco LeBaron is one of 70 residents who have volunteered to join a rural police force to protect the town. The Mexican government has given them permission to arm themselves.

Fewer plural marriages now

For all the violence, residents mostly have stayed out of the fight. Their ancestors first settled in Mexico in the 1880s, during the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz, who offered the religious outcasts refuge from the harassment and prosecution they faced in the United States for 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. Polygamy was banned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the official Mormon Church, in 1890.

The community based in Colonia LeBaron, numbering about 1,000, has one motel, two groceries and many schools. There are no ATMs or liquor sales. Many residents 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 men make their money working construction jobs in the United States; a young person might work 10 years hanging drywall in Las Vegas before he has enough money to buy a plot of land to start a pecan orchard here.

The community was dragged into the drug fight May 2, when 16-year-old Eric LeBaron and a younger brother were hauling fence posts 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 he must pay them $1 million if he wanted to see Eric again.

The next day, 150 men gathered at the church to debate what to do. They had no confidence in local police. Ariel Ray, 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. 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.”

Hundreds of the LeBaron clan, along with Mennonites and others, went to the state capital to protest the crime. Led by Benjamin LeBaron, the protesters met with the governor and state attorney general, who dispatched helicopters, police and soldiers to the area. 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 Meredith Romney, 72, a bishop related to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, soon was taken captive.

The state governor sent Colombian security consultants to LeBaron. The community, 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 local media. He spoke to a graduating class of police cadets. He staged rallies. He got noticed.

Night of the slayings

Early on July 7, four trucks loaded with men were videotaped passing through a highway tollbooth 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 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, ran to his aid. Both men were beaten, and the gunmen threatened to rape LeBaron’s wife in front of her children unless they were led to LeBaron’s 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 buildings and extorted from business owners. According to law-enforcement officials, the gunmen are members of the Sinaloa drug cartel, which is fighting the Juárez cartel for billion-dollar cocaine-smuggling routes into El Paso.

The tollbooth camera captured the men’s departure — 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, 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 Juárez 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 Juárez cartel was responsible for the killings, banners appeared in Ciudad Juárez: “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. Another banner was hung from an overpass Wednesday, suggesting that Benji LeBaron was a thief: “Ask yourself where did all his properties come from?”

At his 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.”