[THIS IS A LONG POST BUT CAME OUT ABOUT 8 HOURS AGO. VERY IN DEPTH READING OF THE MORMON EXECUTIONS IN SONORA]
On the morning of November 4, 2019, dozens of men armed with assault rifles positioned themselves for an ambush along a dirt path through Sonora, Mexico, 70 miles from the US border. Three SUVs arrived, two driving ahead, one lagging behind. Inside the vehicles were three mothers and 14 children. On their way from the farming village of La Mora, some were traveling to a wedding and others north into Arizona.
The gunmen opened fire, first attacking the vehicle behind and then striking the two cars in front. The bullets pierced through the vehicles — through cushions, dashboards, and windows. The men then torched one of the cars, a Chevrolet Tahoe carrying Rhonita Miller LeBaron and four of her children, reducing its frame to a charred husk of metal. The men shot Christina Langford Johnson dead after she climbed out her Suburban, reportedly to plead for mercy. In all, three women and six children were killed.
Amid the great brutality fortune showed flashes of mercy. Five children survived bullets to the back, jaw, leg, wrist, and chest, and hid terrified for hours on the freezing mountainside. A boy trekked 14 miles to seek aid. His 9-year-old sister wandered lost on dirt paths, with one shoe, her foot bloody and blistered. The fusillade also missed Faith Marie Johnson, Christina's 7-month-old daughter, who sat in a car seat in the back. With her head nicked by a fragment of shrapnel, she would survive more than nine hours without food, water, or milk, until a group of relatives, including Julian LeBaron — a carpenter and anti-crime activist from a sprawling Mormon family — arrived to rescue her. "She opened her eyes, like, 'What's up?'" he said. "I think she had been crying all day."
The obvious suspects were the drug cartels who have waged a bloody war across Mexico, sowing massacres and filling mass graves. North of the border, cartel atrocities — such as the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa or the slaughter of 72 migrants in San Fernando — never seemed to galvanize great concern. This time would be different.
The brutality of the killings, and that the victims were US citizens and members of a cross-border Mormon community, captured the American imagination. It roused the attention of President Donald Trump, whose tweets about the attack spurred blanket media coverage, particularly on Fox News. In the days after, a Republican lawmaker even raised the possibility of sending US troops into Mexico, an idea seemingly inspired by action films. And in a rare agreement between the countries, FBI agents were allowed over the border to assist in an investigation.
Both the White House and Mexico's National Palace promised that those responsible would be punished, but by spring the pledges had gone unfilled. An opaque investigation by Mexico's attorney general office led to a string of questionable arrests, and families of some suspects took to the streets to declare their innocence.
Gen. Homero Mendoza, who oversaw a federal commission on the case, said gunmen from the Juárez cartel had attacked the women and children by accident. But the theory — mistaking them for cartel hit men — raised serious doubts. The investigation seemed to be devolving into a mess, as many high-profile investigations in Mexico do.
Without justice, conspiracy theories flourished. According to one, the victims had been targeted by angry farmers in a dispute over water rights. Another said that their deaths came as part of a US plot to invade Sonora and lay claim to its valuable lithium deposits. Others claimed it was part of a plot to destabilize the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had promised to end the drug war through a policy of "hugs not bullets."
After the La Mora attack I interviewed dozens of members of the Mormon communities, police officers, federal agents, relatives of the suspects, and witnesses to the aftermath of the killings. I found a series of scattered pieces. The first responders to the crime were cartel gunmen. A military machine gun was used in the attack. A shoot-out in a nearby town went on for hours longer than reported. The LeBaron family had a bloody history with both cartels and Mexican soldiers. And a cartel boss who had recently switched sides was making a savage grab for territory.
In what follows, I've attempted to offer the most detailed account of this tragedy.
In late February, Julian LeBaron, the relative and activist who appeared widely on television, fled to the US. He said he had received information that a cartel had planned to assassinate him. Many others from La Mora also went stateside, bringing the future of their farm into question. The Mormons were outsiders who had carved out a fruitful life in the arid hills of northern Mexico, and hoped the cartel war would leave them untouched. But the bubble of security in which they lived had burst.
During a cold, sunny week in January, I visited the town of La Mora. Media coverage of the killings has been riddled with errors, the residents said. They don't live in compounds, nor do they all hold the same religious beliefs. The massacre affected not only the LeBarons but the Langfords, Millers, Rays, and Johnsons, too, all prominent members of the Mormon enclaves in Sonora and Chihuahua.
In La Mora, I went into a broad one-story house to meet Jenny Langford, a warm Welshwoman in her early 70s, and Amelia Sedgwick Langford, a slim woman in her late 50s from the US. Both were wives of Dan Langford, the late founder of La Mora. All lived together to raise their combined 23 children, who went on to have 102 grandchildren. During our meeting, a number of smiling children and grandchildren came and went, offering me homemade bread, honey, and spaghetti.
Amelia, who lost her daughter Christina in the attack, told me true justice would mean finding not just the gunmen but those who planned the carnage that day in November. "Just getting the person that shot my daughter and having him put away — that isn't going to fix it," she said.
Sitting across the sofa, Jenny said she had no regrets about leaving a working-class life in the UK to live close to nature in a large polygamous family in Mexico. But the lifestyle she'd led for almost half a century has come under threat. "There are people who have left this farm because they believe the worst, that it was a planned deal and next time it might be us," she said. "We believe the only answer really is divine intervention. That's what I'm praying for."
When a few hundred Mormons first crossed the Rio Grande and settled in Mexico in 1885, they took sanctuary in a valley near the indigenous ruins of Paquimé. There, they would start a community called Colonia Juárez. But they soon ran into a problem — a lack of water, with dry months seeing only a trickle emerging from a riverbed that cut through the semidesert of Chihuahua.
Then, one afternoon, an earthquake shook the valley. "When morning dawned, to the Saints' amazement, the trickle of water in the riverbed was now a large stream," E. Leroy Hatch, a resident of the colonies, wrote in a history. "The earth tremors had opened hot springs twenty miles up the river."
Such stories color the accounts of the Mormons in Mexico. (Hatch even compared their exodus to the Israelites search for the promised land.) But their move had a political angle.
Since the 1850s, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invited congregants to practice plural marriage. As the US government cracked down on the practice, eventually making it a felony, some devotees looked to Mexico, where it was largely tolerated. After the LDS itself banned polygamy, Mormon migrants expanded their communities south of the border, from Chihuahua and Sonora to as far as Baja California and Quintana Roo.
Alma Dayer LeBaron, the patriarch of a vast polygamous dynasty, was born in Arizona, raised in Colonia Juárez, and founded the nearby Colonia LeBaron. Some of his relatives claim he has up to 7,000 descendants over five generations, making the LeBarons the biggest family in the Americas. (Some of the fathers have 50 children or more.) In the 1950s, Alma's son Joel said he experienced visions of God telling him to build a holy kingdom on earth. So he founded his own temple, whose worshippers regarded him as a prophet. In "The LeBaron Story," a book by his brother Verlan, he says Joel also warned the US would collapse "and that great destructions and sufferings would take place."
In the 1970s, Ervil, another LeBaron brother, experienced visions too. He founded a breakaway church that eventually became a murderous cult. Ervil and his followers, including some of his 13 wives, are alleged by investigators to have killed dozens of victims in Mexico and the US, including his brother Joel. "He claimed the right over life and death, branding all who opposed him criminals," Verlan wrote. The cult members carried on killing even after Ervil — dubbed "The Mormon Manson" — died in a Utah prison in 1981.
Across the mountains from Colonia LeBaron, a Mormon father and his four sons, the Langfords, immigrated to found La Mora in the late 1950s. The village would grow until 300 people either lived there, or visited for holidays. At the start, the poor families of La Mora grew their own food, wore hand-me-down shoes, and washed their clothes in the river. But things changed when the young men of the community found lucrative work in the subzero oil fields of North Dakota during the energy boom of the 2000s. Some became wealthy by planting the pecan trees. The families laid deep roots, and one of the eldest children, Adam Langford, was elected mayor of Bavispe, a rustic town nearby.
Over time, a smattering of marriages would draw together La Mora and the larger, more prosperous Colonia LaBaron. Today, many members of Mexico's Mormon communities split their time between Mexico and the US. Some follow strict LDS teachings, others pray in fundamentalist churches. Some still practice polygamy, while others are atheist or agnostic. Some are light-skinned and blonde, others brown-skinned with dark hair. Some speak English as a first language, some Spanish, others both, and they listen to American country music alongside Mexican rancheros.
Alex LeBaron, a tall, bearded 39-year-old, grew up in Colonia LeBaron before serving as a US Navy officer and member of the Mexican congress. Today, he tends to his pecan grove full time. In his youth in the 1980s and '90s, drug traffickers were seen as regular people, poor folks trying to make it. "We were surrounded by major drug cartels, and they never bothered us and we coexisted with them," LeBaron said. Mutual respect governed the relationship. "Most of the leadership of the local drug cartels back in those days were pretty socially responsible … We never grew up hating these people or seeing them as our enemies."
This amity between drug traffickers and communities once prevailed across Mexico. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, which ran Mexico for most of the 20th century, kept the gangsters in check and let the police tax the cartels while taking down token mobsters. Traffickers expanded from opium and marijuana to cocaine, heroin, and crystal meth.
When the presidency finally changed hands, in 2000, Mexicans celebrated a new era of democracy. But with politics thrown on its head, the control over the cartels crumbled.
In 2006, President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels, but they fought both Mexican security forces and one another, armed with the Kalashnikovs and AR-15s that flooded in from the US. The war came to the Mormons' states. Sonora, where La Mora is, fell under the control of the Sinaloa cartel, while Chihuahua fell under the control of the Juárez cartel.
With an army of hit men, the Sinaloa cartel pushed into Ciudad Juárez. But the Juárez cartel had become a powerful force divided into several factions, among them the Barrio Azteca, a gang that controlled the streets; La Linea, the core traffickers and their gunmen; and the Linces, an elite squad of former soldiers. The clash of cartels made Juárez the most murderous city on the planet, with more than 9,000 homicides between 2008 and 2011.
The turmoil hit the pockets of the cartels, who diversified their criminal activities to include extortion and kidnappings. Rich ranchers and businessmen had hoped to be spared. Then the cartels started kidnapping them.
The Mormons were no exception. The first sign that they would be caught up in the bloodshed came in 2005, before Calderon declared war on the cartels. That year, Alex's father was murdered in a carjacking in Sonora. Alex pressured police to solve the case, and found the culprit was a local car thief killed in a shootout.
In May 2009 cartel operatives abducted Eric LeBaron, then a teenager, and demanded a million-dollar ransom from his family, which included wealthy farmers. But the LeBarons refused, predicting the gangsters would keep coming after their many children until they had nothing. The family marched to the state capital in Chihuahua, demanding security. A week later the cartel released Eric.
The LeBarons became unofficial crisis advisers for other families dealing with kidnappings. One of the elder sons, 32-year-old Benjamin LeBaron, became a spokesman, talking about the need for solidarity against kidnapping. In the early hours of July 7, 2009, gunmen went to his house and shot him dead, along with his brother-in-law Luis Widmar. "The drug cartels were fed up with our leadership in the area," Alex said. The murders shook the LeBarons, who began guarding the entrances to town with guns. But Benjamin's death was not the end.
Several months later, another incident occurred that has gone largely unreported. On the night of October 9, 2009, Alex's brother, DJ LeBaron, hosted a gathering at his farm. At midnight, a truck pulled up to the gate and switched off its lights. DJ, his brother, and a worker sneaked out with guns drawn. They could hear men shuffling with weapons. "It was a super-dark night, no moon," DJ said. "We automatically thought these guys were bad news … At that moment gunshots started going off."
Both sides fired; bullets hit two of the intruders. They piled the wounded into their vehicle and left. DJ saw it was a military pickup. "My heart just dropped to the ground. I was, like, 'Oh fuck.' … 'We're in deep shit.'"
After several of the LeBarons gathered on the farm and called the federal police, the soldiers returned in force. One of their numbers had died, they revealed. DJ and some others in the LeBaron camp eventually agreed to go into military custody, but only after the federal police took their photos, a measure to help prevent them from being disappeared. That night, the soldiers threatened and beat DJ, but he believed that the fact he was photographed by the police saved him from being buried in the desert.
Ultimately, the military released a statement saying it had been doing a routine patrol. DJ was initially charged with murder and locked in a Juárez prison. But a judge, seeing the killing had been accidental and the soldiers had sneaked up on the farm, dropped the case.
As DJ left the jail, a soldier gave him a message. "One guy looked at me directly in the eye. He's like, 'You're probably getting out right now. But we're going to fucking get you out there'… Obviously, they are still upset. One of their guys got killed … I did hear rumors for a lot of years that they were planning some retaliation."
The LeBarons took their struggle to the national stage. Julian, a stocky carpenter and brother of the murdered Benjamin, joined peace marches led by Javier Sicilia, a celebrated poet, whose son had also been killed by cartel thugs. In plazas across the country, they joined parents morning for their slain children and helped Mexico come to understand that many of the dead were innocents.
Alex's activism helped vault him to the state legislature, and then to a seat in the federal congress as a member of the PRI. As his first move in Chihuahua, he supported a harsh anti-kidnapping law. Afterwards, kidnappings in Chihuahua dropped radically, from 233 reported cases in 2009 to just eight by 2014. "This made a huge difference for many years," Alex said.
But following a dip in murders, they swung back up in 2015 and reached new heights after López Obrador won power in 2018. Meanwhile, the extradition of El Chapo Guzman in 2017 weakened the Sinaloa cartel and a new generation of Juárez gangsters began pushing back, igniting fighting along the Sonora-Chihuahua border. This time it was the Juárez cartel's La Linea gang, who were intent on seizing territory.
In 2019 tensions rose along that border. Locals would drive from Sonora into Chihuahua to buy cheaper gas. But two men made the trip and never returned and everyone stopped going.
In June, a convoy of over 100 gunmen traveled from Chihuahua to the Sonoran village of Tesopaco, torching cars and killing at least 15 people. Some of the attacks were reported to be led to a gangster named Leonel Toscano, alias El Tolteca, who had flipped sides from the Sinaloa cartel to Juárez.
One problem of the drug war is there are always more villains waiting in the wings.
"It's one of these things you always have to be working on," Alex said. "A never-ending process of good against evil."
On the evening of Sunday, November 3, 2019, a convoy of vehicles raced through Pancho Villa, Chihuahua, a ramshackle village along the dirt path leading to La Mora. A circus had come to the village that evening. After its performance, residents gathered. They said the convoy looked ominous — typical of those of cartel operatives. Something bad could be going down and they should stay in their houses, they said.
About 1:30 a.m. on November 4, another convoy of vehicles carrying gunmen drove into Agua Prieta, a town about 100 miles northwest of La Mora, on the US border. They sprayed bullets and torched cars. Local cartel gunmen emerged and fired back at the invaders.
[AT THIS POINT I'M GOING TO STOP. YOU UNDERSTAND THE RICH HISTORY THAT LED UP TO, AND FOLLOWED THE MASSACRE. TO READ THE REST, PLEASE GO TO THE LINK BELOW]
In reply to this post by Parro
I really think it makes much more sense that it was an accidental ambush, rather than targeted killing.
J, don't know that. It looks like a convoy especially with a Tahoe. But you don't torch when you know otherwise, especially children. Heating up the plaza. A place to confront for territory. La Lineas vs. Guente Nueva, maybe, and sacrificial lambs as a by product? Maybe it runs deeper
We are talking drugged out, often underage, inexperienced gunners in the darkness/fog of war, who get orders to light up anyone coming down the road. That's what I think makes the most sense. Children? Not even a consideration when there is a war like in Sonora or Chiuas. They wouldn't have known any of that, just starting firing, and when it started, you can't just stop it.
I think you recommend a book.called Down By the River about the Juarez Cartel for me and what happened to el JL. I've read some of it. Does it include history about the Mormons and Cartels conflicts? Thanks for the recommendation.
It's been since 2011 that I read Down by The River, and I cannot say that it does mention Mormans and those groups, but it may have. JL was murdered in Navalato, Sinaloa in 2010, by either Sinaloa people or his own.
Charles Bowden is an exceptional writer. "Down by the River", Drugs, money, murder and family, was written 16 years ago. I do not see a reference to Mormons, but do see the entanglement of a murder in El Paso, to a larger scheme in Juarez.
I pulled that book back out of my bookcase and started reading again. Stay tuned . . . .
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