David Agren, The Guardian, January 23, 2020
After nine women and children were shot dead by cartel gunmen in the barren hills of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, 100 members of their fundamentalist Mormon community fled the country for the United States.
Cousins Julián and Adrian LeBarón lost nine close relatives in the ambush, but they never considered leaving the country of their birth. Instead, they have launched a quixotic campaign for justice – not just for their slain kin, but for the many thousands of people murdered or vanished amid Mexico’s cartel violence.
“We have to overcome our fears and do whatever we can to put a stop to this shit,” Julián told the Guardian.
The two cousins – nut farmers from the high plains of Chihuahua state – make unlikely anti-crime activists. But they hope that they can help persuade others to rise up and pressure their public officials to put an end to the bloodletting.
It is no small ambition in a country which last year saw its highest number of homicides since records began – and where mass killings fall quickly from the news cycle. Victims of the drug wars are often seen as complicit in their own deaths, and their families left to suffer in silence.
But Julián LeBarón argues that Mexico has endured enough suffering – and has precious little left to lose. “People have to experience enough fear, enough pain, in order for them to say: what else can they do to me?” He added: “It’s happened to me.”
In Mexico, victims’ relatives and anti-crime activists often end up being targeted themselves, but the LeBarón clan has stubbornly refused to keep quiet, speaking out against both organized crime – and the security policies of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
LeBarón recognizes that such outspokenness is only possible because of his family’s binational status: their ancestors moved to Mexico in the late 1800s to avoid US polygamy laws, and almost all of the clan retains US nationality.
Partly because of that, the massacre dominated headlines around the world and prompted the US president to call on Twitter for “WAR” against Mexico’s cartels.
“We have dual citizenship. We have the protection of the FBI and Donald Trump’s tweets that scare the bejesus out of some people. Who the hell else is going to say something?” he said, between sips of macchiato in a crowded Mexico City Starbucks.
“They kill four women yesterday in Ciudad Juárez and tomorrow it’s not going to be news. [But] they killed three women and some kids from our family and it’s international news,” he said.
But the family’s relative privilege, also brings responsibility with it, he argued. “We’re the face and the voice of those women – and everyone that’s suffering in Mexico.”
The LeBarón family first rose to national prominence in 2009, when they refused to pay a ransom after a 16-year-old from their community was kidnapped. The boy’s elder brother Benjamín LeBarón led a brief campaign to demand action by the authorities and encouraging others to resist extortion – before he and his brother were murdered.
Two years later, Julián joined an anti-violence caravan led by the poet Javier Sicilia who hoped the cross-country convoy of victims would force Mexicans to face up to the devastating impact of the violence.
On Thursday, LeBarón will march again with Sicilia who has called for new peace caravans across the country which will converge on the national palace this Sunday.
The new campaign is itself a bleak indicator of the limited progress successive governments have made towards establishing rule of law. Crime statistics have continued to break new records every year: 35,588 people were murdered in 2019 and some 62,000 people have vanished since the current war on drugs was launched in 2006.
Sicilia confessed that he had never planned to organize another national protest, but told the Guardian: “I just couldn’t take so many more deaths, especially what happened to the LeBaróns – women and children murdered in such a repugnant, outrageous way.”
López Obrador, or Amlo, promised to end the militarized strategy of his predecessors in favor of a vaguely defined strategy of moral renovation and addressing what he considers the root causes of violence: poverty and corruption.
But so far, his promise of “hugs not bullets” has proved ineffectual: the massacre of the Mormons came just days after gunmen from different groups massacred 13 policemen and besieged an entire city. Meanwhile a new national security force has focused more on stopping Central American migrants than catching drug traffickers.
“The president has every right to hug people who are attacking him, but he has a monopoly on the use of force and the tools of security,” said LeBarón. “He has absolutely no right whatsoever to ask any citizen to embrace people that are murdering his family.”
He is at pains to stress that he is not an opponent of Amlo, who has twice met members of the LeBarón family since the massacre, and promised that the case will not languish in impunity.
But the family’s activism – and speculation that Donald Trump might push some kind of intervention against Mexican cartels – has stoked a visceral reaction from the president’s most ardent supporters. Hashtags telling the LeBaróns to leave Mexico have surged on social media.
Adrián LeBarón, whose daughter Rhonita Lebarón was killed in the Sierra Madre ambush, said he was long used to being labelled a vendepatria – or traitor.
“I’m a nobody over there [in the US] and I’m a nobody over here. I’m a vendapetria both ways,” he said, switching between Spanish and halting English.
Both LeBaróns argue that any attempt to confront Mexico’s security crisis needs to start at the bottom, unpicking the networks of corruption which have contaminated government at all levels.
And they are skeptical at the idea that any further US involvement could help. “If the US were to send a drone to kill [senior Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael] ‘El Mayo’ Zambada that wouldn’t solve a thing,” said Adrián.