“It won’t be easy to walk away from here,” Langford said outside the funeral Thursday of Rhonita Miller and her four children. “This is our home. But you need to do what you need to do to stay safe.”
For generations, the several hundred residents of La Mora lived safely here in northern Mexico, even as the presence of drug cartels around them grew, eventually outnumbering the police and soldiers. They kept their doors unlocked. They let their children play unattended. The town felt like their own secret, a place they would never leave.
The bilingual U.S.-Mexican citizens of La Mora became activists here. They became some of the region’s most prominent farmers. They ran for public office.
“Until this week, I thought I would die here,” said Loretta Miller, 53, Rhonita’s mother-in-law. “Now I don’t feel safe.”
A communal decision to give up on Mexico would reflect the specific calculus of one of the country’s most isolated and unusual communities. Yet it would also reflect Mexico’s descent into mass violence — a canary in the coal mine, a community that has survived through dark days here but saw the present moment as much darker.
In the hours after the community recovered the bodies of the three mothers and six children shot to death in a succession of attacks outside town on Monday — several charred after their vehicle was set on fire — some families began huddled conversations about leaving.
David Langford, whose wife, Dawna, and two children were killed, spoke of buying property in the United States.
Joe Darger, whose daughter had married into the La Mora community, told her that he no longer felt safe visiting her here.
His son-in-law agreed. “Home sweet home, but not so sweet anymore,” he told Darger.
“That innocence is broken,” Darger said. “When you don’t feel safe, that’s your primary need as a human being.”
But within the community, a division has emerged between those ready to leave and those who want to stay and fight for justice. That rift was on display during some of Thursday’s funeral eulogies.
“La Mora isn’t the best place for us to live. It’s the only place,” said Adrian LeBaron, Rhonita’s father.
He spoke literally and metaphorically about the dirt road where his daughter was killed, urging the community to remain.
“That road should become the safest place for us to cross,” he said. “So that we are free.”
In recent years, the community’s young have increasingly left to work in the United States, many in oil and gas in North Dakota. Young men such as William Langford used their American salaries to build large, suburban-style homes in La Mora’s foothills.
But when they came back to visit, they noticed that the town was becoming more tense. They were accustomed to cartel checkpoints, which they passed easily, as soon as the armed cartel members recognized them. But those checkpoints grew more threatening, with more unfamiliar men.
“More heated,” William Langford said. “We were used to them just leaving us alone. But that was changing.”
As he spoke, another member of the family, Adam Langford, vehemently disagreed with William’s calculus.
“I’m not leaving,” he said. “What can you do? Do you run? That doesn’t fix anything.”
Adam Langford, who has twice served as mayor of the municipality, said the community of La Mora could help push for a solution to the region’s violence. He is acutely aware that because the victims of the tragedy were American, the attack is receiving a disproportionate amount of attention — a spotlight on which he would like to capitalize.
“With all this attention on us, maybe that will pressure the Mexican government to do something,” he said.
But as the eulogies continued into Thursday evening, services protected by Mexico’s national guard, the commitment to stay in La Mora was overshadowed by a pervasive sense of fear.
When Corina LeBaron began to eulogize Rhonita Miller, her sister, she acknowledged how difficult it was for the mourners to show up.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. “I know it was scary to come.”