MEXICO CITY – The nine women and children killed by drug cartel gunmen in northern Mexico lived in a remote farming community where residents call themselves Mormon — descendants of former members of The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints who fled the U.S. to escape the church's 19th century polygamy ban.
Many of the families living there trace their origins to the community of La Mora to the 1950s — and some have much deeper roots. With a population of less than 1,000 dual U.S.-Mexican citizens, La Mora lies in a desert valley ringed by rugged mountains about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of the border towns of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta in Mexico's Sonora state.
While many La Mora residents identify as Mormon, they also consider themselves independent from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Cristina Rosetti, a Mormon fundamentalism scholar and expert.
A La Mora resident who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared the cartels, said his great grandfather settled there in the late 1890s or early 1900s after leaving the U.S. and was later run back across the border by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. The resident's grandfather moved back to La Mora with others in the 1950s.
Although many La Mora residents believe in mainstream Mormonism tenets, they also believe "they shouldn't be forming churches, they shouldn't be organizing under one leader. They should just be Mormon and live their Mormon life. That's who the people of La Mora are," Rosetti said.
Some of the families living there still practice polygamy while others stopped generations ago, she said.
Austin Cloes of Utah, who had relatives among the victims , said they were religious people who believed in Jesus Christ. None of the family members he knows practice polygamy, he said.
The victims, including 8-month old twins, died in an ambush as the three SUVs they were in traveled along a dirt road in a remote, mountainous area where the Sinaloa cartel has been in a turf war. Eight youngsters were found alive after hiding in brush, but at least five had gunshot wounds or other injuries, officials said.
Relatives say the victims had traveled on that road many times without problems. Terry Langford, whose aunt was one of the women killed, said she had been on her way to Phoenix to pick up her husband at the airport and that the other women were going to visit relatives in Mexico.
Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history and religion and Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, said communities like La Mora first sprang up after the U.S. government started prosecuting polygamists during the 1870s.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded by settling colonies outside the U.S. in Mexico and Canada.
The church abandoned polygamy in 1890, though some members continued to practice it. In the 1920s, church leaders mounted an aggressive campaign against those members, excommunicating some and applying church discipline, Bowman said.
That sent some fundamentalists into northern Arizona and others south to Mexico.
Better known than the Mormons from the La Mora community are the founders and descendants of Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua state.
Alma LeBaron moved his family to Chihuahua when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church was expelling polygamists. After his death, his sons established the fundamentalist Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, Bowman said.
In 2009, 32-year-old Benjamin LeBaron was killed by cartel gunmen in retaliation for his public anti-crime activism. His younger brother was kidnapped and later released.
Through intermarriage over the generations, the LeBaron surname became common in La Mora, Rosetti said. But since the family name is so widely associated with the church, La Mora residents consider themselves "independent Mormons" to stress they have no connection to the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, she said.
"These colonies have been withering a little bit to begin with," Bowman said. "There have been incidents with the cartels in the colonies in the past 15 years ... This kind of thing has been a problem for a while and I think it's part of why many of the people there are leaving."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this year launched a campaign for people to stop using the shorthand church names "Mormon" and "LDS." Church president Russell M. Nelson said the Lord impressed upon him the importance of the full name and that leaving it out was "a major victory for Satan."
Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.