On Monday, nine people were killed in northern Mexico near the U.S. border while driving between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua. Three mothers and their six young children, all of whom were dual U.S.-Mexico citizens, were riding in a caravan to a wedding.
On the way, the victims’ families say they were gunned down by members of drug cartels. One of the cars caught fire and exploded. The victims were part of a community with ties to Utah — many of the families there are independent Mormons.
KUER’s Caroline Ballard talked to Cristina Rosetti, a scholar of Mormon fundamentalism, to learn more about the victims and their community in La Mora, Mexico.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Tell me about La Mora, Mexico.
Cristina Rosetti: The community of La Mora is really interesting because it is a diverse religious community. There are LDS people that live down there. There are members of the Church of the Firstborn, which we've been hearing a lot about, and there are independent families.
But most people in La Mora and the people who were, unfortunately, victims yesterday are what we refer to as an Independent Mormon. What that means is that they are not part of a church. They don't have a leader. They're not organized.
A lot of people have been referring to them as the La Mora Group or a sect of the LDS church, and that's not the case. They are just different families that have common beliefs, but they're not part of a church and they all just live together in La Mora.
CB: Why are they down there?
CR: As most people know, the LDS Church publicly ended the practice of polygamy — for the first time — in 1890. A lot of people went down to Mexico to maintain the practice of plural marriage.
The La Mora community is fundamentalist, so when we say independent Mormon, more often we're referring to fundamentalists. Many of them practice polygamy. Some don't, but most would believe in it as an eternal religious principle.
A lot of them choose to live there because they've lived there for generations, so it's a generational community, but they're able to practice their religion.
CB: Who are these victims? Who are these families?
CR: I first heard about this from the Darger family, who are a Mormon family that live in Utah. Unfortunately, tragically, they have relatives that passed in this. So these victims are related widely to different Mormon communities. The family that's come up a lot is the Langford family, and they're an independent Mormon family.
CB: Is there a history of friction between this Mormon community in La Mora and drug cartels in this region of Northwestern Mexico?
CR: As far as I know, just from hearing different accounts, La Mora has lived in relative peace for upward of 60 years, and they haven't had any problems like this.
That is in distinction, somewhat, to the name that we've heard a lot circulating — the LeBarons. A lot of people have conflated the La Mora community with the LeBaron community, and that is an incorrect conflation.
CB: LeBaron is another Mormon community in Mexico.
CR: Yes. Importantly, there are multiple sects of the LeBaron order. The one in Colonia LeBaron has historically had some conflict [with cartels], but they are very distinct from the La Mora community.
CB: In the aftermath of an event like this, what are the possibilities for misconception among the wider population of people hearing this news?
CR: I've heard a lot of people just kind of refer to them as Mormon. I've heard people refer to them as citizens or Utahns, people with connections to Utah.
But I also have heard people say LeBarons were killed by cartels. And I've also heard people say Church of the Firstborn were killed. And I've strangely heard people say FLDS [Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints] are being killed.
People who aren't as familiar with this topic do conflate fundamentalists with the FLDS and with wider things. People want people to exist in boxes, and so it's easy to say “they're part of this church, they're part of this community, they're part of this group,” when in reality that's not the case.
One of the unfortunate things is seeing people make assumptions about who these people are without knowing anything about them. It makes it more complicated because we're talking about individual families, and lumping them into something is really easy for us. But it also does a disservice to the individual and family lives lost.
CB: President Trump weighed in on this attack on Twitter, calling them “a wonderful family.” But he's also using it as a point to say, “Hey, Mexico, we're waiting for you to tell us to come in with forces and destroy your drug cartels.” Does this have the potential to set off a bigger conflict?
CR: This is a really interesting moment because President Trump has done a lot to stigmatize Mexican people and undocumented people. So it's going to be interesting if he suddenly sides with a historically marginalized community — the polygamists.
It's going to be interesting to see how that plays if the government rallies behind polygamist people who've been killed. You know, I would hope that as humans, we would rally around people who've died. But families have said that it was cartel-related. I'm still waiting to hear more on that.