A WATCHMAN scans the roads for killers in the dead of night, peering out from a tower looming over a small, sleepy hillside town.
It's not a scene from a film, but the daily life of Mormons fighting to keep their families from the bloody grip of drug cartels running riot in north Mexico.
The world was shocked by the sickening massacre of nine Mormons, including children and babies, in Mexico this weekCredit: Getty - Contributor
Mum Rhonita Maria LeBaron died along with four of her children
This week the sickening massacre of nine Mormons - including six children - has shone a spotlight on a fragile community blighted by decades of tragedy.
In a "targeted" hit that has seen a rival of El Chapo arrested, three vehicles belonging to two families were ravaged with bullets on their way to a wedding in Sonora, where babies were left to burn alive and kids were shot in the back.
While police are yet to pin down the hitmens’ exact motives, the grisly scene is just the latest chapter in a long, brutal feud between the two groups plagued by kidnappings and brutal executions.
Most remarkably, it has seen a tight knit, religious community turned into a high security fortress where guards barricade roads like anti-terror units, illegal firearms are smuggled in and ordinary civilians man watchtowers on a seven-day rota round the clock.
Members of the LeBaron family mourn as they examine the burned out car where their relatives were slaughteredCredit: AFP or licensors
Soldiers assigned to National Guard keep watch outside the properties of Mexican-American Mormons that were killed in BavispeCredit: Reuters
A caravan of friends and relatives of the LeBaron family arrive at the site at the Sonora-Chihuahua borderCredit: AP:Associated Press
Guards man a checkpoint at dusk on the edge of Colonia LeBaronCredit: New York Times
A military base was installed in the compound and patrol cars regularly sweep the streetsCredit: New York Times
KIDNAPPINGS AND $1MILLION RANSOMS
The LeBarons - a polygamous community where men take multiple wives - were first caught in the cartels’ dangerous web in 2009.
The family’s large houses and nice cars attracted the attention of organised criminal syndicates looking to fill their coffers.
It was here that on May 2 16-year-old Eric LeBaron was seized by five armed men as he worked on the family’s Sierra Madre ranch.
His younger brother was sent to tell his father, Joel, of the news.
The shameless kidnappers called three times to ask for $1million dollars in ransom – refusing to negotiate.
If you give them a cookie, they’ll want a glass of milk. If we don’t make a stand here, it’s only a matter of time before it’s my kid
Furious, the family debated hiring professional bounty hunters, before going over the heads of the local police force to petition in their hundreds the state’s governor and attorney general.
“If you give them a cookie, they’ll want a glass of milk,” Craig LeBaron, told the Desert News. “ If we don’t make a stand here, it’s only a matter of time before it’s my kid.”
The response was immediate.
Helicopters scoured the streets as police desperately searched for the missing teen. Roadblocks were set up to block off escape routes.
And miraculously, within eight days, Eric was freed.
Yet while the clan celebrated victory, tragedy was just around the corner.
SLAUGHTERED IN COLD BLOOD
Mourners carry the coffin of Benjamin LeBaron, who was brutally executed in 2009Credit: AFP - Getty
Benjamin and his brother Luis Widmar were hauled into vans by cartel members disguised as policemen and shot in the headCredit: AP:Associated Press
Benjamin LeBaron, who led the campaign to free Eric, had become an outspoken critic of the cartels.
He set up a group, SOS Chihuahua, which helped citizens protect themselves from organised crime - but his actions didn’t go unnoticed.
Two months after the first ransom attempt, pickup trucks filled with up to 20 cartel members– heavily armed and dressed as police officers – arrived outside his house.
As Benjamin’s children screamed inside, cartel members smashed through windows, seizing him and his brother-in-law Luis Widmar.
Driving them to the outskirts of the town, the cartel heavily beat the pair before executing them with shots to the back of the head.
Jose “El Rikin” Escajeda, an alleged drug-trafficking kingpin, was soon arrested for the murders.
How the 'Mormon Manson' plagues LeBarons' dark history
The LeBarons' roots in Mexico date back to the 1880s - and the family history is tinged with bloodshed.
When the Church of the Latter Day Saints banned polygamy in the late 19th century, hoards of Mormons - who traditionally take multiple wives - fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution.
Among these was Alma Dayer LeBarón, who in 1924 set up Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua state.
Alma's son, Joel, carried on the family's polygamous tradition - taking six wives and 42 children - but after taking over the leadership in the '50s, also united 30 families under the 'The Church of the The Firstborn'.
Joel's brother and second in command, Evril, however, resented his authority.
Driven on by the controversial Mormon doctrine 'blood atonement' - where certain crimes are punishable by death - he ordered Joel's murder and went on to kill a number of his rival faction leaders.
Eventually, Evril, dubbed the 'Mormon Manson', was cornered by police in 1979 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
He died two years later still linked with countless deaths, including those of his own 17-year-old pregnant daughter Rebecca, who had tried to leave the group.
BUILDING A FORTRESS
The residents of Colonia LeBaron - the town where the 1.000- strong clan live - were left shattered by the gruesome executions.
"Ten children under the age of seven were left orphans when that happened that night," Julian LeBaron told Vice.
"If this is acceptable, there's no future left."
At first they vowed to fight fire with fire, and kill 10 criminals for every Mormon gunned down.
Realising it would just continue a cycle of bloodshed, however, they established one of the most sophisticated non-military security operations across the country.
On one of the highest hills overlooking Colinia LeBaron, they built a watchtower to keep tabs over a key drugs trafficking route coming into the town, with a community watch team staffing it day and night.
We’re living in a war zone. But it’s a war zone with little kids running all around in the yard
We pretty much know everybody," Brent LeBaron told Vice. "So if it looks like a vehicle I've never seen before, it's getting checked.
Barricades, checkpoints and roadblocks were set up in the style of anti-terrorist measures seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The community was turned into a fortress.
The house beloning to four of the nine LeBaron family members who were killed in a hail of bulletsCredit: AFP or licensors
Officers drive past a supermarket belonging to the LeBaron family in ChihuahuaCredit: New York Times
The community has schools, parks and even a golf courseCredit: New York Times
OLD WOUNDS REOPENED
To this day, Colinia LeBaron remains on high alert.
Frustrated by strict Mexican gun laws, they remarkably took to smuggling rifles across the US border - in open defiance of local police.
The government, rather than prosecute, backed the town, allowing them to set up armed civilian patrols before installing a military base inside the compound.
Yet as Monday's massacre shows, even the best security efforts will only get you so far.
Confusion remains over why the two vehicles were targeted, but there are fears the brutal turf war between the Los Salazar and Juárez cartels may have seen the families mistaken for a rival on a drugs trafficking route.
“The highways and roads especially can be contested areas,” Cassius Wilkinson, a Mexico-based security analyst, told the WSJ.
“If you have a family travelling in big SUVs, the likelihood that they might be mistaken for scouts or members of a rival organised-crime group is probably higher.”
A sign announces the entry to Colonia LeBaron, one of many locations where the extended LeBaron family lives in ChihuahuaCredit: AP:Associated Press
The state's main roads have reportedly become fiercely contested by rival cartelsCredit: Getty - Contributor
Heartbreaking footage emerged yesterday showing a wounded baby being treated for gunshot wounds in a hospital in Sonora.
As the horrifying details emerged, US President Donald Trump vowed to "wage war" on the cartel "monsters".
The country has seen a wave of violence this year as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's government struggles to keep the streets in order - culminating last month in the escape of El Chapo's son following a gunfight.
Julian LeBaron, speaking shortly after the death of Benjamin, summed up the situation for those caught in the crossfire with haunting prescience.
“We’re living in a war zone,” he said. “But it’s a war zone with little kids running all around in the yard.”
The massacre suspect is named only as a 30-year-old man called Leonardo and was found late on Tuesday near the US/Mexico borderCredit: SSP Sonora
Cartels are battling for dominance in Mexico as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government struggles to keep the streets in order
Relatives of slain members of Mexican-American families belonging to Mormon communities react at the site where some of their relatives diedCredit: Reuters
Women and children were shot and burned in their vehicle which was on the way to a weddingCredit: AFP or licensors
Cartel violence in Mexico
In the first half of 2019, there were a staggering 17,608 gangland murders in Mexico - with 94 people being killed every single day.
Last year saw a total of 33,341, making it the bloodiest year on record, but this year is set to be the most violent of all time.
And the bloodshed is spilling into affluent tourist hotspots including Mexico City and Cancun - where over half a million Brits holiday every summer.
While the latest homicide statistics are horrific, the methods cartels use to keep rivals in check is just as terrifying.
In recent years, large cartels have splintered into smaller factions who then battle for previously shared turf, escalating the violence, and prompting kidnaps and torture.