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Protest leader, relative shot to death in Mexico

The attack on Benjamin LeBaron, a U.S. citizen, and his brother-in-law bore the signs of an organized-crime hit. LeBaron had led a demonstration in May against kidnapping.

July 09, 2009|Ken Ellingwood

MEXICO CITY — Anti-crime activists on Wednesday decried the slaying of a protest leader in northern Mexico who went public after his brother was kidnapped in May.

Benjamin LeBaron, 32, and a brother-in-law were shot to death Tuesday after they were seized by gunmen in Galeana, a farming town in the border state of Chihuahua.

The attack bore signs of an organized-crime hit. A message left with the bodies said it was retribution for the capture of 25 drug suspects in a neighboring town. The arrests by Mexican soldiers reportedly came after an anonymous tip.

LeBaron, a U.S. citizen, had led a protest in May in the state capital, also called Chihuahua, after the kidnapping of his teenage brother, Eric. The family refused to pay the $1-million ransom; the youth was eventually released.

Benjamin LeBaron had since spoken out on crime issues. Last week, he took part in a convoy of residents to the state capital to denounce kidnapping.

The men killed Tuesday belonged to a community founded during the 1920s by breakaway Mormons after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began cracking down on polygamists. The sect has a tumultuous and sometimes violent past. In 1993, a federal jury in Texas convicted three members of a sect offshoot in the slayings five years earlier of three former members and an 8-year-old child.

Commentators said Tuesday's killings showed how risky it is to speak out against drug traffickers and other criminal gangs in Mexico.

"Public complaints carry a lot of risk. People who dare to do so are exposed to just what happened to this man," said Maria Isabel Miranda, an activist whose son was kidnapped in 2005.

"The criminals' message was unequivocal: Fear us," the El Universal newspaper declared Wednesday in an editorial about the Chihuahua slayings.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug smugglers and other crime groups when he took office in December 2006. But amid rising drug violence and kidnappings, Mexicans feel vulnerable. Residents avoid reporting crimes because they don't trust police or worry that they will be exposed to retribution. In a recent poll, 72% of respondents said they feared being kidnapped.

Witnesses said more than 10 gunmen stormed LeBaron's home, seizing him and brother-in-law Luis Widmar, who had come to help.

LeBaron's brother James said the community did not want to be cast as crime fighters. "There's just so much insecurity here, we don't know what to think," he said Wednesday by telephone. "All we're trying to do is live safely."

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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