Why offshoots of the Mormon church fled to Mexico

Daniel Gonzalez and Bree Burkitt, Arizona Republic

PHOENIX – The family members attacked Monday in an ambush in Mexico highlight the history of fundamentalist members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who originally fled from the USA to Mexico to practice polygamy.

The victims, including nine women and children who were slain, were members of a religious community in the state of Sonora and had dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship. 

Mormon families from Utah began settling in Chihuahua and Sonora in the mid-1880s as the United States placed restrictions on polygamy. The practice of polygamy has mostly been abandoned in the communities in Mexico, experts said. 

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The Mormons did not want to abandon their wives and families, so they moved to Mexico, said Gordon Bluth, a Queen Creek, Arizona, businessman who was born in one such community in Mexico and has studied the history of Mormons in Mexico.

Under an agreement with the Mexican government, the Mormons purchased 100,000 acres of land and established eight colonias, or towns, in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora.

More Mormon families from the church's fundamentalist wing began flocking to Mexico after the church officially banned polygamy in 1890.

Most of the families moved back to the USA after the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910 but began to return after the war, Bluth said.

Bluth was born in Colonia Dublán, the same town where former Michigan Gov. George Romney was born and raised. He was the father of Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee who is a U.S. senator from Utah.

Bluth, 64, said he left Colonia Dublán in 1974 when he was 19 and moved to the USA. He said he still owns a pecan orchard in Colonia Dublán and frequently returns to the town.  

He said many of the people who live in colonias in Chihuahua and Sonora have roots in Mexico that go back decades.

There is a diverse mix. Not all remain fundamentalists and many still consider themselves part of the LDS church, he said. Most speak Spanish and English equally well, he said.

"When they speak Spanish, you can't tell they speak English, and when they speak English, you can't tell they speak Spanish. They have no accent in either language," Bluth said.

Many of the families living in the colonias in Mexico have both Mexican and U.S. citizenship because their parents gave birth at hospitals in border communities in the USA or because they have at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen, he said. Their loyalties are more Mexican.

"They are Mexicans with ties to the U.S.," Bluth said. "Just like there are brown people living in the U.S., these are white people living in Mexico."

Colonia LeBaron is one of many locations where the extended LeBaron family lives in Chihuahua, Mexico. On Nov. 4, drug cartel gunmen ambushed three vehicles along a road near the state border of Chihuahua and Sonora, slaughtering at least six children and three women from the extended LeBaron family, all of them U.S. citizens living in northern Mexico.

One of the eight colonias, Colonia LeBaron, was founded by Alma Dayer LeBaron in the 1920s. LeBaron was among the fundamentalist Mormons who moved to Mexico to evade U.S. law enforcement and continue practicing polygamy.

One of his sons, Ervil, founded his own fundamentalist polygamist church, called the Church of the Firstborn, that took on a cult following in the 1970s. He ordered the killing of his rivals and justified violence with the religious doctrine of blood atonement. He was arrested and extradited from Mexico to Utah, where he was sentenced to life in prison. He died in 1981. 

The Church of the Firstborn mostly dissolved after LeBaron's death, and polygamy is no longer common in Colonia LeBaron or in other Mormon colonies, Bluth said.

The people who were ambushed Monday were traveling from Colonia Bavispe, in Sonora where they lived, to a wedding in Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua, said Leah Staddon, a relative who lives in Queen Creek.

Although some of those killed shared the same last name of LeBaron, they belonged to a separate community called La Mora and had no ties to the Church of the Firstborn, said Cristina Rosetti, a Salt Lake City-based scholar on Mormon fundamentalists in Mexico. 

All victims caught up in the ambush were related to Julian LeBaron, who lives in Colonia LeBaron, Staddon said.

Julian LeBaron is an activist in Mexico. For years, he has tried to pressure Mexico to crack down on cartel violence and extortion, said Gladys McCormick, a Syracuse University history professor who studies cartel violence and corruption in Mexico.

In May 2009, as the drug war in Mexico escalated, LeBaron's 10-year-old brother, Eric, was kidnapped from the family ranch by criminal organizations. The cartels demanded $1 million "so that they would not return him in pieces," LeBaron wrote in a commentary published in April 2010 in the Dallas Morning News.

The family refused to pay, and the boy was released after LeBaron organized hundreds of people to protest at the capital of Chihuahua, McCormick said.

Two months later, heavily armed men showed up at the door of LeBaron's older brother, Benjamin. Benjamin was executed along with Luis Widmar, a friend who came to his aid. Widmar headed a civil defense group called SOS Chihuahua.

"In my state of Chihuahua and throughout Mexico, innumerable lives have been devastated by the loss of freedom and respect that are the right of every human," LeBaron wrote in the commentary. "A system that does not respect the life, property and conscious of the individual is a system of criminals. A society ruled by men, and not by law, is a society of vultures and cannibals who feed on desolation."

McCormick suspects criminal organizations may have attacked the women and children in retaliation against LeBaron and his activism.

"To be honest, I think what happened (Monday) was a long time coming," McCormick said. "The fact that they were dual citizens probably pushed off the inevitable, which was to say these organized criminal networks were going to seek retaliation for the fact that Julian LeBaron has been so outspoken and the family sort of refusing to pay extortion fees."

Victims ambushed by gunmen were related to Julian LeBaron, who lives in Colonia LeBaron, LeBaron has campaigned against drug cartel violence.

Many of the families living in the area have become quite prosperous as pecan farmers, ranchers and businesspeople, Bluth said. That has made some of them targets by criminal organizations for kidnappings and extortion, Bluth said.

Some prominent family members travel only with bodyguards, he said.

McCormick said the order to ambush the families must have come from top criminal leaders because they must have known that killing women and children with dual citizenship would generate "ginormous blowback" both in Mexico and the USA. 

Tuesday, President Donald Trump wrote in a Twitter post, "This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth."

"Something must have happened to make this massacre worthwhile to the cartels," McCormick said.

Staddon said she doesn't believe the attacks had anything to do with the victims' ties to the LeBarons.

"I think they are just monsters," she said.

Follow Daniel González and Bree Burkitt on Twitter at @azdangonzalez and @breeburkitt

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Mexico family shooting, ambush: History of Mormon groups in Sonora