Early one morning in Galeana, Mexico, a series of pickup trucks pulled up to a small, unassuming house. It was like many houses in the state of Chihuahua, except this one was occupied by the family of a man who decided to stand up to the drug cartels that had for so long terrorized his friends and neighbors. The man (along with a friend who had come by to check on the commotion) were dragged away at gunpoint. The narcos drove them down the street and shot them.
That was the last straw. Now there’s a new force standing up to the cartels terrorizing the people and government of Mexico, a resistance is coming from what you might think of as an unlikely source: The Mormon Church.
The war on drugs in Mexico has seen an uptick in violence in recent years. When the government switched its tactics to take down the higher-ranking members of the cartels, their successes left power vacuums in their wake, which sparked wars for dominance among individuals inside the cartels. As a result, the drug-related violence has only gotten more widespread and more intense as time wore on. The violence is ten times deadlier in Mexico than in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Vice reporter and founder Shane Smith drove down to Chihuahua to talk to the long-established Mormon colony run by the Lebaron family, descendants of the first Mormon settlers in the region. The Lebaron family, like most who stand up to bullies, were just pushed around once too often, as a result of kidnappings, extortion, and ultimately, murder.
Vice founder Shane Smith with the Mexican Federal Police at a Chihuahua road block.
Mormons first came to Mexico in 1875 to escape persecution from the U.S. government for their beliefs, specifically plural marriage – also known as polygamy. Those who refused to adhere to the United States’ demand to end the practice came to Mexico where they could continue what they saw as not only a divine right, but a commandment. Their descendants still live there to this day, just south of the border.
The murders in Galeana were the result of the Mormon colonies who put pressure on the cartels through their political partners in the Mexican government. After one of their own was kidnapped, they told the government to do something about it, or they would do it themselves. The kidnapped child was returned unharmed, but shortly after, the Mormons paid the price with the lives of Benjamin Lebaron and his friend Luis Widmar.
Firearms smuggled from the United States into Mexico and captured by the Federales.
That changed the game. The Mormons went through the process of getting gun ownership rights in the country, no small feat. Then they called in the Federales, who use their colony – a known safe haven from narcos – as a base of operations, intercepting drug smugglers on major highways in Chihuahua, conducting patrols and raids, and watching the traffickers as they work. The Mormons themselves have also joined the fight, they have adopted the tactics of U.S. troops fighting insurgents in the Iraq War, setting roadblocks and observation posts of their own.
Word got around to the narcos, eventually. Rumor has it the Mormons employ scouts and snipers to defend their colonies. The drug traffickers are all known to the Mormons now, their vehicles and faces easily identifiable to Church leaders, who work in close concert with the Mexican federal police. Their enduring vigilance has led to an uneasy stalemate in violence and kidnappings. They still occur, but with much less frequency.