The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Mexico became home to communities of Mormons

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 8-month-old twins — were part of a community of fundamentalist Mormons. It’s not recognized as part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Utah.

How Mexico’s cartel wars shattered American Mormons’ peaceful, but wary, existence

Creation of the Mormon community in Mexico

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the LDS Church, numbers more than 12 million members worldwide. The LDS Church, whose members are often referred to as Mormons, was established in the United States in the 1800s, but not all Mormons are LDS members. (In recent years, moreover, the LDS Church has pushed not to use the term Mormon to describe its members.)

Polygamy was common among members until 1904, when the LDS Church outlawed the practice everywhere in deference to U.S. laws. Some Mormons who believed polygamy was an essential element of their faith began moving to 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 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; Utah became a state in 1896.

Generations later, U.S.-Mexico border towns remain home to communities of fundamentalist Mormons. Many Mormons living in Mexico speak both English and Spanish and hold dual citizenship.

The Mexican minister of public security presented a chronology Nov. 5 of an attack that killed nine members of a Mormon family with U.S. citizenship. (Video: President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador)

Several of the victims in the Monday attack reportedly were traveling to La Mora, a Mormon community about 70 miles south of Douglas, Ariz., for a wedding. Some in the La Mora community practice polygamy, according to according to Cristina Rosetti, a scholar of Mormon fundamentalism.

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, a historian 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 might feel that the United States “betrayed them” and what they see as their right to religious freedom.

Some of the victims had the last name LeBaron, 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. Former leader Ervil LeBaron was imprisoned for plotting the killings of opponents in the 1970s and ’80s.

The LeBarons claim their leaders had special inspiration from God and began fighting with other polygamous sects in the 1970s, said Bowman, a specialist in American religious history at Claremont Graduate University.

Leah Staddon, who lives in Arizona, told The Washington Post that her family members were among the victims. Staddon said that 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 1,000 acres and included 30 to 40 homes.

Mitt Romney also has roots in Mexico

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 came to the Chihuahua desert in 1885 to escape U.S. laws against polygamy.

Romney’s family in Mexico, many of whom share his last name, live in 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.

As Nick Miroff of The Post reported in 2011, 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,” 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.”

Miroff continued, “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.”

Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Brittany Shammas contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included the incorrect university affiliation for Matthew Bowman, who is at Claremont Graduate University.