In a January 28, 2012 headline story on NPR, writer John Burnett, sought the answer to the question, “Should Mexican citizens own guns?” The title of the article, meant to draw readers was, “Mexican Community Takes Taboo Stance On Guns” Although the story is about owning guns in Mexico, it draws attention to gun ownership for all private citizens.
One Village’s Experience
The story tells of the small farming village of Colonia LeBaron about 130 miles southwest of El Paso, Texas, in the border state of Chihuahua. The village was originally founded by breakaway Mormons from the U.S. and today consists of residents that are naturalized Mexicans, some of which hold dual citizenship, with many born in Mexico. They are bi-lingual, hold close ties to the U.S., and sell most of what they grow to the U.S.A. Workers pack red chilies for shipment to New Mexico. The Colonia also grows alfalfa, pecans and cotton on irrigated fields bordered by the windswept foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains.
They have lived a peaceful existence in Colonia LeBaron for decades until May 5, 2009, when a 16-year old boy was kidnapped and organized crime members demanded a one million dollar ransom. Though the boy was eventually released unharmed, the residents of the town came together to decide what could be done to take a stand against future kidnappings, extortion and other violence from the criminals, which run rampant along the Mexico/Texas border.
As with many rural towns and farms, they were without police or federal assistance to protect them. They decided to form an anti-crime group to defend themselves. The leader was Benjamin LeBaron, a relative of the original founders.
Despite their efforts, on July 7, 2009, according to Julian LeBaron, close to 20 men showed up at Benjamin LeBaron’s house and terrorized the family, to send the message that the criminals would not be opposed. A brother-in-law, Luis Widmar came to help. The men were dragged from their homes and taken a few miles down the road where they were shot and killed.
However, the plan backfired on the criminals. The cold-blooded murders of Benjamin LeBaron and Luis Widmar galvanized the community. It prompted them to take a stance that is familiar to Second-Amendment advocates in the U.S., but one that is taboo in Mexico.
A Community Arms Itself
The residents believed that if they had guns, there would be less violence, as the criminals would think twice before returning to the small farming community not knowing if the residents had guns are not.
As Mexican gun laws are convoluted in that Mexicans can own guns, but it is very difficult to buy them, the villagers found a way to circumvent the problem. They started a sport shooting club, which allowed them to avoid the aggravation of obtaining individual permits. They gathered at the sporting club, where they would plink away at steel duck targets to improve their gun handling skills and become better marksmen.
Their plan worked as they have not had any more violence from organized crime since gaining a reputation of being well-armed and not afraid to use their weapons.
Today, if the criminals return, the LeBaron colony is locked and loaded. However, putting guns into the hands of Mexican citizens whose only reason is one of fear is not necessarily the answer. While gun possession may be a great deterrent against violence with some criminals it can also backfire in unexpected ways. With gun ownership should come a sense of understanding of when and how to use the guns as a weapon.
A Gunfight With The Mexican Army
One night, in October of 2009, a gunfight erupted between the LeBaron brothers and a squad from the Mexican army. The LeBarons claim the soldiers came to the front gate and did not identify themselves. Fearing they were kidnappers the family opened fire.
One soldier was killed. One LeBaron brother and another farmer were charged with murder, but the judge ultimately dropped the charges because the evidence had been tampered with by Mexican officials.
The gunfight and the resultant death, while wrong from both viewpoints, did bring the problem of Colonia LeBaron to the light of day. Today, the government has garrisoned soldiers in the small village to help protect the residents against future criminal activity and while the guns are still in the hands of the residents, things have quieted down. The residents believe it is because the criminals know that the community will now fight back.
The founders of the village have an advocate in their cousin Alex LeBaron, a 31-year-old Chihuahua state deputy with national aspirations. He’s a burly, baby-faced politician who attended college in New Mexico and served in the U.S. Navy. His own father was killed in a carjacking.
If Alex LeBaron makes it into the federal Congress, his most passionate issue will be changing Mexico’s convoluted gun laws. He believes that if more communities were allowed to defend themselves Mexican organized crime would be on the run.
As Alex LeBaron told NPR’s John Burnett, “We’re Mexican citizens 100 percent, and we should have the right to bear arms and we’re going to keep fighting for that right as long as it takes,” he says.
“I think Mexico is way past that revolutionary uprising point in our history,” he says. “I think we’re ready to come into the 21st century and be part of this whole global process of modernization. And this is one of them — gun laws.”
Gun Laws in Mexico
In Mexico, where criminals are armed to the teeth with high-powered weapons bought from gun stores in the United States and allowed to cross into Mexico by U.S. officials, it may come as a surprise that the country has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world. U.S. authorities say they do not know just how many firearms are smuggled across the border each year. This is mainly because the federal government does not track gun sales and traces only weapons used in crimes. Officials estimate that 90 per cent of weapons recovered in Mexico come from dealers in the U.S.
Law-abiding Mexicans who want a gun to defend themselves have no good options. Either they fight government red tape to get a legal permit, or they buy one on the black market.
Though the Mexican constitution permits gun ownership, the government strictly limits that privilege as a response to the violence of the Mexican revolution and to uprisings in the 1960s when students looted gun stores in Mexico City.
“In the black market it’s very easy to acquire mostly American-made weapons here in our country, but through the legal process it’s … very complex and expensive,” says Alex LeBaron.
A citizen who wants a permit for a weapon must apply to the Mexican military — a process that can cost upwards of $10,000. Then they pay to have the permit renewed annually. The military further regulates the caliber of weapon, how many guns a person can own, how much ammunition they can buy each month and where in the country they can take the weapon.
The government abolished the last private gun store in 1995. Today, the only legal gun store in the country is in Mexico City, guarded and operated by the armed forces.
Dr. Oscar Urrutia Beall, a longtime member of the Paquime Shooting Club, explained to NPR’s John Burnett, “In Mexico, the laws effectively don’t allow you to purchase weapons. There are some weapons they sell in Mexico City, but the paperwork is difficult. Here, they won’t let us buy a gun, but they let us own a gun. It’s an incongruity, a failed law.”
Other Citizens Express Reservations
The article questioned Mexicans, “Should Mexicans have guns?” Do Mexicans really want gun laws similar to those in the U.S., where buying an assault rifle can be as easy as buying a beer?
Basilio Sabata Salaices, the mayor of the municipality where Colonia LeBaron is located stated, “Here, guns are very restricted,” the mayor said. “But I see in the U.S. many things happen because youth don’t know how to use guns. I don’t think we should make it easier to possess a weapon, as in the U.S.”
Beto Renteria, a prominent businessman in Nuevo Casas Grandes whose wife was kidnapped three years ago and returned after he paid the ransom, stated, “There are lots of Mexicans who have never shot a gun,” he says. “It could be dangerous putting a gun in the hands of an inexperienced person; we could hurt someone.”
Perhaps the best answer came from Fernando Saenz, the leader of a citizen’s militia in Ascension, a town that made headlines last September when a mob beat two suspected kidnappers to death. Like many Mexicans in regions plagued by crime violence, Saenz owns an illegal, unregistered weapon — in his case, a 9 mm handgun.
“Look,” Saenz said pensively, “I think guns are not advisable. I think what the government should do is put honest, well-trained people in jobs to impart justice.”
In the end, the reporter stated that he believes that the crusade of the village of Colonia LeBaron is at odds with a certain cultural ambivalence toward firearms, at least among law-abiding Mexican citizens. Most Mexicans understand that gun ownership is not the answer. What is needed is an honest government that will readily protect the citizens against organized crime.
Still, there are the few who believe in meeting violence one-on-one and that until the federal, state and local governments move to protect it’s citizens against criminal groups, the citizens should have the right to protect themselves.
When NPR asked Alex LeBaron if Colonia LeBaron is openly flouting federal gun laws, his reply was, “Yes, we have to!”
The Mexican Secretary of National Defense, charged with enforcing gun laws, declined to comment on the NPR story.
The director of a pro-gun website called Mexico Armado (mexicoarmado.com) said there is no popular movement at the moment to liberalize the nation’s gun laws. Perhaps, he added, that’s because anyone who wants a weapon in Mexico — be they a good guy or a bad guy — has no problem getting one.