~ This chapter was originally published in the book La guerra por Juárez edited by Alejandro Paez Varela and published by Editorial Planeta in Mexico in 2009 ~
In the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains there’s a valley near the village of Le Barón with a stretch of cultivated desert where thousands of nut trees and alfalfa bushes grow. The valley is home to an orchard of 3,500 still very small hazelnut trees. They aren’t more than half a meter tall, but when they start to bear fruit in four years they will stand more than five meters high. Their thousands of branches will tangle together to form bands of shade, exactly like the hundreds of nearby walnut trees.
The hazelnuts came to the northwest Chihuahuan desert from Chile and were brought by Ferrero Rocher. Three years ago, around 2006, the Italian chocolate maker became interested enough in Galeana’s climate to finance an almond plantation as a substitute for its current suppliers in Turkey, Italy, France and South America.
If the trees receive the seven hundred hours of the cold they require, and they grow, the Italian transnational company will finance cultivation of five thousand plants across ten thousand hectares. It will generate hundreds of jobs in this part of the state. Thousands of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, jars of Nutella and other products will go out into the world filled with hazelnuts grown in Le Barón, Chihuahua.
Benjamín Le Barón is participating in the project, a 32-year old farmer of US-Mexican ancestry known for his leadership abilities.
He founded Nogaleana, a society for the rural producers from Le Barón who planted hazelnuts on their land.
An orchard in the middle of the desert and dozens of U.S. style houses with large gardens and red-tile roofs reveals the area’s wealth.
It was February of 2009 and in Chihuahua the battle between the drug cartels had worsened. Days of great terror loomed over Benjamín Le Barón, over his family, and over the entire community.
“For those who do not Believe”
It happened just after three in the morning. Benjamín Le Barón was sleeping at home with his wife, Miriam, and their five children. First they heard engines, movement by several people, then men shouting and, as they came closer, rapping on the glass windows and against the door.
Stories abound about what happened next before that dawn on 7 July 2009. The thirty-two year old Benjamín Le Barón and his family were surrounded by a group of twenty hooded men with machine guns, shouting for money and guns while they took everybody’s telephones.
From there they took Benjamín and Luis Widmar, his brother in law. The attackers put them in one of their four trucks. They sped off and meters down the unpaved road that links the house to the state highway, they forced them out and shot them several times in the head.
The crime crushed this small community established by U.S. immigrants and it shocked the country. Nationally Benjamín was known for heading the protest against the kidnapping of his younger brother, Erick. In response, Le Barón’s entire population said it refused to make crime pay and would not offer a ransom. The criminals would have to kill the whole town.
The protest sparked government involvement and within a week the patrols had made the kidnappers give up their victim. Benjamín became the symbol of an incipient citizen’s resistance movement against the state of Chihuahua’s worst ever wave of delinquency.
The murderers, however, made it clear that this activity had turned him into a victim. On the bodies of Benjamín and his brother in law they left a written message. It warned: “For the leaders from Le Barón who didn’t believe and still don’t believe, this happened because of the twenty-five guys arrested in Nicolás Bravo: kindly yours, the General.”
The twenty-five arrested in Nicolás Bravo – near to Galeana – were a group of armed men that the Federal Attorney General linked to the Sinaloa cartel. They were arrested in Madera Township after the Army began to search for Erick. In an added twist, the phrase, “for those who do not believe,” was typical of messages that appeared in public or on victims’ bodies in executions in Ciudad Juárez.
The State Attorney General attributed responsibility for the murders on a group of drug traffickers and hit men known as La Línea, but they, as if public opinion mattered, responded by warning the prosecutor to “avoid problems” and stop blaming them. They wrote that the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquín Chapo Guzmán was actually responsible.
La Línea’s message was placed on one of the banks of the Río Bravo, some meters from El Paso’s downtown, in front of Juárez’s city hall. Then they placed another on a bridge and added that the same prosecutor, along with the mayor of Namiquipa, had captured twenty-five men from Nicolás Bravo. Nine hours after this message appeared, the mayor had been assassinated in the township.
Facts and the messages left no room for doubt. The residents of Le Barón were under ambush from drug traffickers fighting over Ciudad Juárez, located north by some two hundred kilometers.
In eighteen months the two cartels left a trail of almost two thousand bodies that seven thousand soldiers could not contain. To be in the middle of their accusations was to be in middle of the worst of the dispute that had turned Chihuahua into the bloodiest state of the Republic.
With Benjamín’s death the Ferrero Rocher almond plantation project would depend on the climate. For Julián Le Barón, the victim’s brother, the most likely thing is that the project won’t happen. Only Benji, he says, was capable of organizing the farmers to produce a harvest of such size.
Julián speaks with the pain of having lost not just one brother, but also his best friend. Benjamín – everybody called him Benji – was one of the people who read his poetry and encouraged him to keep writing. He was, he says, the incarnation of the value of community. He was a businessman, but he was also taking care of the church building and working towards establishing a peace-based community center for the township. All of the decisions he took in his life were based on the greater good. That’s why Benji was the first – out of all his fifty-two children – who Joel Le Barón called to ask what to do about Erick’s kidnapping. And that’s why it was Benji who was digging a grave to bury a cousin at the time he received his father’s phone call. And that’s why, then and there he responded differently to the way people usually do in such cases; instead of keeping quiet he told everybody who was at the funeral. He asked them what they would do because the decision affected everybody. He accepted the proposal not to pay ransom, a way not to encourage criminals who might come for the rest of the children. He risked the life of his brother, but he respected the decisions of his fellow citizens and he became a natural leader and spokesperson for the bold stance of making sure crime does not pay.
Knowing that the community had become vulnerable, it was Benji who also proposed restoring an old house belonging to the family for use as the office of the State Investigation Agency (Agencia Estatal de Investigaciones – AEI), which the government opened after the kidnapping. Meanwhile, he also held meetings with other farmers to exchange information related to organized crime. The night before his murder he had been at one of these meetings in Casas Grandes.
In the AEI, meanwhile, they began investigating the people of Le Barón. The authorities created a map of the community, marked in red those homes of people the State Prosecutor considered “combative” (conflictivo). This type of information appeared on a banner in Ciudad Juárez a few days after Benjamín’s death; it linked his family to several crimes.
In the database belonging to the AIE there are the details of seventy-seven aspirants to the Community Police (Policia Comunitaria), a defense body armed by the state government and at the margins of the municipal police. Benjamín’s name is on that list. Entering the Community Police meant he was going to become a police officer, for a time putting his life as a businessman on hold. His inclusion on the database indicates that he was ready to participate in the first self-defense movement of the federal war against drug trafficking. The column of the database containing Benjamín’s details, however, stands out for being the only one shaded in grey. Ultimately, it signaled his end.
Prize-winning Journalist Sandra Rodríguez Nieto was a 2014 Neiman Fellow at Harvard. Her first book, La fábrica del crímen, relates the story of impunity in Ciudad Juárez during the height of the city’s recent violence. This essay was first published in La guerra por Juárez edited by Alejandro Pérez Varela. It is not available in the original Spanish on the web.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.