An anti-crime activist and a neighbor, both members of the pacifist Mennonite community in northern Mexico, were killed Tuesday by gunmen believed linked to a drug cartel, a local legislator said.
Mexican anti-crime activists said the slaying of Benjamin LeBaron, a U.S. citizen, in Chihuahua state was the first time one of their own had been killed for denouncing crime and called it a chilling warning.
LeBaron led street protests in May demanding the release of his 19-year-old brother, Eric, who had been snatched by a kidnapping gang in May. The teenager was later freed.
Such gangs are frequently linked to drug cartels in Mexico, and there were signs that one such cartel may have been involved in Tuesday's killings of LeBaron and neighbor Luis Widmar, who apparently went to LeBaron's house to try to help him.
"A commando of 15 to 20 men came to Benjamin's house at 1:30 in the morning, and because they couldn't get in through the door, they broke out the windows," said state legislator Victor Quintana, basing his account on conversations with LeBaron's family.
"They kidnapped the two of them and they left them dead on a dirt road" just outside the town of Galeana, Quintana added.
He said witnesses reported the attackers were dressed in camouflage, "like uniforms." Mexican drug gangs frequently use fake police or army-style uniforms.
An official at the Chihuahua state prosecutor's office confirmed the deaths but offered no further details.
A woman who identified herself as Widmar's mother-in-law told a local radio station she believed the killing was retribution for LeBaron's activism.
That seemed to be the import of a message left at the slaying scene: "For the LeBarons, who didn't believe, and who now believe.
For the 25 men detained in Nicolas Bravo."
In June, police and soldiers detained 25 suspected hit men for the Sinaloa drug cartel in the town of Nicolas Bravo, which is near where Tuesday's killings occurred. The hit men had allegedly terrorized the town, and an anonymous tip reportedly led authorities to arrest them.
Anti-crime activists said this was the first time one of their colleagues has been slain.
"There have been threats, yes, but never killings," said Maria Elena Morera, the former head of Mexico United Against Crime. She had long brushed off threats to her organization, but noted that "organized crime has escalated in every way" in recent years.
Another activist called LeBaron's killing was a warning against denouncing crime.
"The message is, 'If you continue to speak out, we are going to come after you,"' said Maria Isabel Miranda, whose private investigative work led to the capture of several suspects in her son's 2005 kidnapping. Her own vehicle was shot at last year.
The Mennonite community in Chihuahua dates to the 1920s, when thousands of Mennonites moved from Canada to northern Mexico to
preserve a way of life rooted in farming and objection to military service. While now considered Mexican citizens, most Mennonites
continue to live in rather isolated communities, farming and ranching.
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