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  • El Barzon burned vehicles and wells belonging to the LeBaron family, which they claim is stealing water from neighboring communities.

    El Barzon burned vehicles and wells belonging to the LeBaron family, which they claim is stealing water from neighboring communities. | Photo: Youtube still

Published 2 May 2018

The LeBaron family and social organization El Barzon are involved in a long-term dispute over scarce water resources in Chihuahua.

El Barzon, a civil society organization of ranchers and activists, has mobilized against an illegal well being built by the LeBaron farming family in Chihuahua, northern Mexico, which they say is robbing neighboring communities of much-needed water.

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On April 30, members of five communities and El Barzon tried to break into one of the LeBaron's family ranches to destroy wells and crops, but they were shot at with live ammunition. At least one member of El Barzon was wounded in the knee by a gunshot and many vehicles and crops were destroyed.

Julian LeBaron, who also describes himself an activist, says the family started shooting in self defense when their property was raided.

Both parties immediately uploaded videos to social networks in support of their own version of events, showing fire, people running and gun shots. The LeBarons even used a drone to document the clash.

"We called the police because they were shooting at us and we weren't armed," said a member of a nearby community, who claims he can identify the shooters.

By noon, the La Mojina ranch, owned by the LeBarons, was surrounded by police officers along with people from the communities of Benito Juarez, Villa Ahumada, Flores Magon, Buenaventura and Constitucion.

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Members of El Barzon and the United Front in Defense of Water and the Environment say they decided, along with communities neighboring the LeBarons' ranches, to verify the wells by themselves because the authorities had failed to take action, despite several complaints being filed.

El Barzon is involved in several environmental and political struggles in the state, and has fought long battles against Canadian miners and ranchers they say are using the state's scarce water illegally. Now they claim the LeBaron family is taking water from neighboring communities in order to water their own walnut trees.

The LeBaron family exiled to Chihuahua in the 1920s after splitting from the mainstream Mormon church in the United States. They established an isolated community in the northeastern part of the state, where they practise agriculture in vast territory.

Over the years, they've been caught up in several controversies: in 2009, the LeBaron family decided to arm itself in order to fight back against the local drug cartel which had killed two of its members.

"They're saying that we shot at them, but they're not saying they were stealing our trucks and tried to run over us and the women," said Julian LeBaron in an interview with Televisa. "At that moment we couldn’t ask for permission to see if we can defend ourselves from people attacking us.”

Gabino Gomez, head of El Barzon, has also given his version of the events: "Yes, there was some damage because the crowd was mad. That wasn't the purpose, but it happened that way. Fortunately there were no deaths, but the LeBarons would've been responsible for them."

A day after the clash, El Barzon blocked a nearby rail road in Villa Ahumada to demand the authorities take action.

Last year, the Constitucion community condemned the fact that Joel Francisco LeBaron Soto had cleared about 100 hectares of common land to grow 19,000 walnut trees, which require more water than regular crops, but are popular due to their high market value.

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Since then, Constitucion and El Barzon have filed lawsuits and demanded search warrants so that authorities can check on the irregular wells and shut them down if necessary, but the LeBarons have refused to let anyone in and even blocked the entrance of their ranches.

In November 2017, the LeBarons prevented the authorities from checking their property using an appeal granted with the help of Alex LeBaron, former National Water Commission delegate and now a federal representative.

As tensions increased, El Barzon and the Constitucion community checked the land by themselves, finding and documenting at least 12 irregular wells with diesel-fueled pumps. They also discovered legal documents presented by the LeBarons allowing them to water 18 hectares, far less than the 100 hectares they are currently watering.

"We're tired of this situation," said a rancher with El Barzon. "We wanted to do things formally: we filed complaints to the prosecutor, the environmental authorities, and nothing has happened. They're just delaying things or avoiding taking action."

In response, the LeBaron family has accused El Barzon of being a criminal gang allied with the government: Martin Solis, a former leader, is now working at the state government's social development ministry, and the LeBarons are demanding his resignation.

In a meeting with State Secretary Cesar Jauregui, Julian LeBaron blamed Governor Javier Corral for the events and called El Barzon "a real criminal gang."

"I don't know why they're messing with us, disrespecting our right to private property," said LeBaron. "The worst part is that now, with Martin Solis in the government, El Barzon and the government are the same."

The family claims the wells are legally registered at the water commission and that the lands were also rightfully acquired.

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