Mexico has some of the toughest gun control laws in the world. But while drug cartels have well-stocked arsenals, law-abiding citizens struggle to get a permit to own a gun.
Even so, in the seemingly tranquil region of northern Mexico, at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains, it’s an open secret that many people have guns for protection.
"Most Mexican families do have guns in their homes, and they’re illegal,” said Alex LeBaron, a Chihuahua state representative and native of the town of LeBaron.
“Even though the law states that certain kinds of weapons are allowed if you register them, but you can’t buy them,” said LeBaron.
In Mexico the military enforces the law that limits the caliber and quantity of guns an individual can own.
Carrying a weapon is illegal, unless the owner belongs to a gun club. Mexico’s military also issues gun-club permits for sporting or hunting purposes.
But the military owns the one gun store in Mexico.
Daniel Madrid, 28, has been going to target practice since he was six and has won several trophies for marksmanship.
He and his father are members of the Paquime Gun Club which has a shooting range in the Casas Grandes area.
Gun club members are allowed to own up to ten weapons. But even law-abiding citizens admit most of the guns registered in Mexico are bought on the black market.
“They let you register them, but they don’t ask you anything,” said Manuel Madrid, 69, referring to the don’t-ask-don’t-tell scenario many gun owners face when registering their weapons with the military.
“We imagine they come from the United States, the majority from Texas,” said Daniel Madrid.
One of the challenges for gun owners in Mexico is the price of ammunition. One box of 50 rounds costs as much as 500 rounds in the United States.
‘’There’s one store in Mexico City, but I’m sure 99 percent of the Mexican families can’t afford to go through the process,” said Alex LeBaron. “So we have to rely on our American counterparts to be able get weapons in the U.S. where it’s very easy with an ID.”
Many in the small town would like to see Mexico’s gun law changed to mirror that of the U.S.
“I wish that Mexico would change that, give us the right to bear arms.” said Brent LeBaron. “I think crime would drop overnight”
Townspeople banded together when they were targeted by cartel criminals. They marched to the Chihuahua state capital in May 2009 after kidnappers held a teenager for ransom. They refused to pay to prevent more kidnappings. The youngster was released unharmed.
But a few months later a group of armed men broke into the home of Benjamin LeBaron, who led the peaceful protest. They dragged him out and also took his brother-in-law, Luis Widmar, who tried to intervene. The two men’s bodies were found a few hours later.
“After Benjamin was killed and Luis, we put a night watch up and we'd watch our town. It was watched every night,” said Brent LeBaron.
He and other men stood guard on the top of a hill that overlooked the town.
“There was rumors that went out that got out to us that we had 50 cals up there, and sniper rifles and night-vision goggles and all this high-tech, you know, Navy SEAL stuff, which was an awesome rumor, you know,” said LeBaron smiling.
Colonia LeBaron was founded by American Mormons who moved to Mexico in 1885 after the U.S. outlawed polygamy. Few practice plural marriage, but many still have strong ties to the U.S. - and similar views about gun ownership.
But many others in Mexico balk at the idea of allowing ordinary citizens to arm themselves.
“I don’t want to run around like Pancho Villa,” said Ricardo Paisano, who owns a small fruit juice stand in LeBaron.
Paisano who lived in Arizona for couple of years said so many people there carried guns, it was like the wild west.
Alex LeBaron, a Chihuahua state representative who calls this region home, says views about gun ownership for self-defense are slowly changing as others in Mexico look to LeBaron.
“We've become a standard for self-defense, a standard for unity, a standard for standing up for a certain cause,” he said.
But nobody expects the gun laws to change any time soon.