The nine U.S.-Mexican family members who were killed Monday in a still-unexplained attack were part of a decades-long migration of fundamentalist Mormons who settled in northern Mexico to practice their religion in relative isolation.
The victims — three women and six children, including two 6-month-old twins — were part of a community that calls itself fundamentalist Mormon. It is not recognized as part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Utah.
There are more than 12 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as LDS, worldwide. The LDS Church, whose members are often just referred to as Mormons, was established in the United States in the 1800s, but not all Mormons are LDS members, according to Cristina Rosetti, a scholar of Mormon fundamentalism.
Polygamy was not uncommon among members until 1904, when the LDS Church outlawed the practice because of U.S. laws forbidding plural marriages. Some Mormons who believed polygamy was an essential element of their faith — also known as fundamentalists — began to settle in Mexico and Canada in the 1870s and 1880s to avoid U.S. prosecution, according to Matthew Bowman, a historian of the Mormon Church.
At that time, the borders between Mexico and the United States were porous and in flux. Mormon leader Brigham Young, for example, chose to settle the church in Utah in part because the territory at the time was part of Mexico and had little oversight from the government. In 1848, Mexico ceded this territory to the United States; the state of Utah was created in 1896.
Generations later, U.S.-Mexico border towns, such as in Chihuahua state, remain home to communities of fundamentalist Mormons. Many Mormons living in Mexico speak both English and Spanish and hold dual citizenship.
The victims in the Monday attack reportedly were driving to La Mora, a Mormon community about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona, for a wedding. Some in the La Mora community practice polygamy, Rosetti said, while others don’t.
There’s no definitive count of how many Mormons reside in these areas.
“One of the issues with these Mormon communities down in Mexico is that they are all not affiliated with one Mormon church,” said Benjamin Park, assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. “Most of the families are what are called independent fundamentalists, not part of an official fundamentalist church.”
Many in these insular communities practice polygamy and may feel that the United States “betrayed them” and what they see as their right to religious freedom.
Rosetti said that in Mexico, these communities have not faced any religious persecution in recent times.
Some of the victims had the last name of Le- Baron, though Rosetti said they were not part of the LeBaron order.
The order was created as a Mormon offshoot in defiance of the church’s prohibition on polygamy and has faced several controversies, including violence involving former leader Ervil LeBaron, who is accused of killing opponents.
The LeBarons claim their leaders had special inspiration from God and began fighting with other polygamous sects in the 1970s, said Bowman, a history professor at Henderson State University.
Leah Staddon, who lives in Arizona, told The Washington Post that her family members were among the victims.
Staddon said her extended family had been living in Mexico for more than 40 years and that most were dual citizens. She described the family as fundamentalist Mormons and said its members lived on the La Mora ranch, which stretched for about a thousand acres and included 30 to 40 homes.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah — a member of the LDS Church — has extended family who still live in Mexico, where his father was born.
Miles Park Romney, Romney’s great-grandfather, had four wives and moved to the Chihuahua desert in 1885 to escape from U.S. anti-polygamy laws.
Romney’s family in Mexico, many of whom share his last name, live in an area of Chihuahua about 190 miles from Texas. “Romney’s Mexican clan are powerful farmers.
“They grow vast fields of peppers, peaches, pears and apples. Through a farm cooperative called Paquime, they export the high-quality produce to the United States,” the news service PRI reported.
The Washington Post reported in 2011 that those who remained have not been able to escape the violence and insecurity plaguing the country, particularly Chihuahua.
“For most of the Romneys here, especially the older generations, Mexico is home,” Nick Miroff reported.
“And like almost any prosperous family in this increasingly lawless region, the Romneys are besieged by criminals’ extortion demands and the constant threat of kidnapping. Some of their orchard managers have been abducted and killed, and one of Mitt’s cousins, a tough, 70-year-old rancher named Meredith Romney, was kidnapped two years ago, then tied up and held in a cave for three days.
“The violence has brought a thousand small changes, as well. High school football teams from the United States no longer come down to play against the Mormon boys of Colonia Juarez. Local kids and teenagers who once grew up riding horses everywhere are now mostly kept indoors, and many in the youngest generation of Romneys dream of a safer life in the United States, like other middle-class Mexicans in the region.”
“We’re sort of like sitting ducks down here,” Jeff Romney told Miroff, “but nobody wants to leave.”