A day of grief in Mex­ico

Me­mo­ri­als be­gin for Mor­mon fam­ily mem­bers who were bru­tally slain. ‘Our lives will never be the same,’ rel­a­tive says.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate Linthicum

LA MORA, Mex­ico — In the days since her 18-yearold son breath­lessly re­ported that some­thing ter­ri­ble had hap­pened to her four grand­chil­dren and daugh­ter-in-law, Loretta Miller has cooked non­stop.

Bur­ri­tos, posole, eggs, pota­toes, chicken.

She has cooked to feed the Mex­i­can fed­eral forces sent here to pro­tect her fam­ily, the relatives ar­riv­ing to at­tend the fu­ner­als and the streams of in­ter­na­tional jour­nal­ists who have come to this re­mote cor­ner of north­ern Mex­ico to find out why nine Amer­i­can women and chil­dren were am­bushed and killed while driv­ing through the moun­tains here Mon­day.

Rais­ing 14 chil­dren and 27 grand­chil­dren pre­pared Miller for this.

“We’re a big fam­ily,” she said as a pot of soup sim­mered on the stove. “We know how to deal with crowds.”

While most houses in this part of Sonora state are made in the Mex­i­can style of adobe or cin­der block, Miller’s would not look out of place on a cul-de-sac in a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia sub­di­vi­sion. In this land of soccer, even the bas­ket­ball hoop in the drive­way is a give­away that the ham­let of La Mora is dif­fer­ent.

Amid the land­scape of cac­tus and mesquite, the well-paved blocks of Amer­i­can-style homes and man­i­cured lawns stand out.

So do the town’s res­i­dents: a com­mu­nity of largely blond and blue-eyed fam­i­lies from a fun­da­men­tal­ist Mor­mon sect that hold both Amer­i­can and Mex­i­can cit­i­zen­ship.

Their blue U.S. pass­ports sep­a­rate them from their neigh­bors, al­low­ing them to work or own busi­nesses in the United States, while many lo­cal Mex­i­cans toil in $8-a-day fac­tory jobs in the low-slung maquilas that hug the bor­der.

Un­til this week, the Mor­mons thought they had an­other kind of Amer­i­can priv­i­lege: pro­tec­tion from narco vi­o­lence. In the 12 years since Mex­ico de­clared war on its drug car­tels, crim­i­nal groups have com­mit­ted hor­rific acts of vi­o­lence against Mex­i­cans but have rarely tar­geted Amer­i­cans like Miller and her fam­ily, aware of the bad pub­lic­ity and un­wanted law en­force­ment at­ten­tion it would bring.

That un­spo­ken rule was bro­ken this week when the nine U.S. citizens from the Mor­mon com­mu­nity were am­bushed and killed. So too was an­other drug war maxim: Women and chil­dren are not to be touched.

“Un­til now, I loved liv­ing here,” said Miller, who grew up in a sim­i­lar Mor­mon com­mu­nity just over the moun­tains in Chi­huahua state.

She said her fam­ily has long had close re­la­tion­ships with the lo­cals, who work in Mor­mon homes and on their pe­can and pome­gran­ate farms. When Miller’s son died last year in a smallplane crash, more than 1,000 peo­ple showed up to the fu­neral, and his Mex­i­can friends hired mari­achis.

Los­ing her son had prepped the fam­ily to deal with Mon­day’s loss, she said. “If that hadn’t hap­pened to us, we never could have sur­vived this.”

Her son Howard moved down from the U.S. with his wife, Rhonita LeBaron, and their chil­dren this year, in part to help out af­ter his brother’s death.

LeBaron, who grew up in the Chi­huahua Mor­mon com­mu­nity but had spent years in the United States, was ex­cited about liv­ing again in Mex­ico, where life was more re­laxed and where their seven kids could roam.

“She was the per­fect mother,” said Miller.

On Mon­day, LeBaron joined a car­a­van of women and kids who were leav­ing town to head to the bor­der to pick up Howard, who was fly­ing back from North Dakota, where he works in the oil busi­ness. Trav­el­ing to­gether, the women thought, would pro­tect them from the dan­gers of driv­ing des­o­late roads through drug car­tel coun­try.

Shortly af­ter leav­ing, LeBaron got a flat tire. The car­a­van re­turned home and LeBaron asked Miller: “Do you think that’s a sign that I shouldn’t leave here?” But she left any­way, switch­ing ve­hi­cles and head­ing out again in Miller’s 2011 Chevy Sub­ur­ban.

When Miller’s son went to check on the bro­ken-down ve­hi­cle, he found the Sub­ur­ban in flames. Up the road, other mem­bers of the Mor­mon com­mu­nity would later dis­cover the two other ve­hi­cles that had been part of the car­a­van rid­dled with bul­lets and strewn with bodies.

In to­tal, three moth­ers and six chil­dren were killed by as­sailants who many here be­lieve were mem­bers of a Chi­huahua-based drug car­tel. The group has been feud­ing with an­other car­tel that con­trols La Mora and other parts of Sonora state.

Mex­i­can of­fi­cials say as­sailants waged two sep­a­rate at­tacks against the three-ve­hi­cle car­a­van.

The first was against 30-year-old LeBaron and her four chil­dren, at around 9 a.m. The sec­ond oc­curred about two hours later and about 10 miles up the road and tar­geted the two other ve­hi­cles. It’s un­clear why or when the ve­hi­cles sep­a­rated.

Au­thor­i­ties said the gun­men fired .223-cal­iber am­mu­ni­tion that is man­u­fac­tured by the Amer­i­can firm

Rem­ing­ton and used in M-16 and AR-15 as­sault ri­fles.

Eight chil­dren sur­vived the sec­ond at­tack. Five were air­lifted to Ari­zona to re­ceive med­i­cal treat­ment, and three were brought to Miller’s house. She stripped them of their bloody clothes, bathed them and mas­saged them un­til they fi­nally fell asleep.

“They cried for hours and hours un­til they couldn’t cry any­more,” she said.

Her son Howard ar­rived in La Mora on Mon­day night, bear­ing gifts for his three sur­viv­ing chil­dren, who were not with their mom in the car that day. The toys helped dis­tract them, but they know what is go­ing on.

Since his life as a fam­ily man ex­ploded in a hail of gun­fire, Howard Miller hasn’t talked much, ex­cept to play with the chil­dren. “I love you, baby,” he tells his daugh­ter Amaryl­lis, 5, cradling her on his lap. “Come here, big boy,” he says to Tristan, 8. In the den where he cud­dles them hangs a sign that says, “Fam­i­lies are for­ever.”

“The car­tels had al­ways re­spected the fam­ily,” Miller says. “But they’ve be­come more ruth­less.”

Mex­i­cans have long known that. Homi­cides have been at record lev­els for the last sev­eral years here, but most killings go un­no­ticed by the in­ter­na­tional me­dia.

Po­lice and jour­nal­ists swarmed this bu­colic farm­ing com­mu­nity, but a sim­i­lar re­sponse wasn’t seen when 27 peo­ple were burned to death in a strip club in Ver­acruz in Au­gust, or when 14 po­lice of­fi­cers were am­bushed and killed in the span of less than an hour in Mi­choa­can in Oc­to­ber.

As fam­i­lies here be­gan bury­ing their dead Thurs­day, there was an eerie sense that the ground had shifted and life for the Amer­i­cans had changed. The com­mu­nity did not just grieve for the vic­tims. They mourned a by­gone time in which Amer­i­cans, and es­pe­cially women and chil­dren, were off-lim­its.

“Our lives will never be the same,” Miller said. “This is the first time I’ve ever thought that I might not spend the rest of my life in Mex­ico.”

The fu­ner­als drew hun­dreds of friends and relatives from across the United States and Mex­ico. Those who trav­eled from the U.S. were met at the bor­der by Mex­i­can sol­diers, who es­corted them to La Mora.

Willy Jes­sop, who came from Utah, said some peo­ple were afraid to make the trip, fear­ing they might be tar­geted.

“Ev­ery­one had to balance fear and love,” he said. “But I think love won out.”

Mem­bers of the Mor­mon com­mu­nity in Chi­huahua state learned sev­eral years ago just how ruth­less or­ga­nized crime had be­come when a teenager was kid­napped and held for ran­som and then the young man’s brother was killed.

In re­sponse, mem­bers of the com­mu­nity formed their own vig­i­lante po­lice force and spoke openly about smug­gling high-pow­ered weapons in from the U.S.

“That showed the mafia there that it’s not worth it to mess with us and that it does more harm than good,” Jes­sop said.

But mem­bers of the com­mu­nity in La Mora have not or­ga­nized in the same way. They have had a kind of truce with the or­ga­nized crime group that con­trols their re­gion, which many here de­scribe as a largely benev­o­lent force of or­der in a re­mote re­gion rarely vis­ited by au­thor­i­ties. Lo­cals say the car­tel keeps thieves out and even makes sure driv­ers obey the speed limit.

On Thurs­day, Jes­sop at­tended the me­mo­rial ser­vice for Dawna Ray Lang­ford, 43, and her sons Trevor, 11, and Ro­gan, 2.

Five of Lang­ford’s other chil­dren were wounded in the at­tack. One of them was shot in the jaw. An­other was shot in the stom­ach.

The me­mo­rial ser­vice was held on a slop­ing green lawn be­hind a hand­some stucco home that be­longed to relatives of the Lang­fords. The 400 guests sang to­gether and prayed to­gether, and then lis­tened as Lang­ford’s chil­dren told sto­ries about their mom.

Lang­ford’s hus­band, David, sat in the front row with his sec­ond wife, Mar­garet. Though not all mem­bers of the com­mu­nity here prac­tice polygamy, the Lang­fords did. This break­away sect of Mor­mons ended up in Mex­ico af­ter the

Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints be­gan crack­ing down on po­lyg­a­mists.

Bryce Lang­ford, Dawna’s el­dest son, re­called his mother’s love of cof­fee and her habit of telling sto­ries that some­times stretched be­yond the truth.

“She was my best friend, the per­fect cof­fee part­ner and the per­fect mother,” he said between tears. He re­called first hear­ing about the shoot­ing on Mon­day, and driv­ing fran­ti­cally from North Dakota.

“Ev­ery mile that we drove down got more and more painful be­cause the re­al­ity was sink­ing in,” he said.

Many mem­bers of the com­mu­nity were think­ing about leav­ing Mex­ico, said Joe Darger, a Utah res­i­dent whose daugh­ter lives in La Mora.

“I didn’t feel safe. No one feels safe,” he said. “And that’s your pri­mary need as a hu­man be­ing.”

As the sun set Thurs­day, mem­bers of the Miller fam­ily was pre­par­ing a fu­neral of their own. They put out hun­dreds of fold­ing chairs for a me­mo­rial ser­vice in the back­yard and erected wreaths of f low­ers, in­clud­ing one that spelled out “An­gels” in pink roses. The youngest vic­tims in the Miller fam­ily were twins Ti­tus and Tiana, who were born March 13.

At a cer­tain point, peo­ple got hun­gry. They looked to Loretta Miller. So she took out cheese and turkey from the re­frig­er­a­tor and be­gan mak­ing sand­wiches.

Pho­to­graphs by Celia Tal­bot Tobin For The Times

FAM­ILY and friends carry the cas­ket of Dawna Ray Lang­ford dur­ing a burial ser­vice in La Mora, Mex­ico.

MOURN­ERS at­tend a ser­vice for Lang­ford, 43, who was killed along with two of her sons, ages 11 and 2. Two other women and four other chil­dren also died.

Celia Tal­bot Tobin For The Times

A GROUP of mourn­ers trav­els to a ceme­tery in La Mora, Mex­ico, where mem­bers of a break­away Mor­mon sect have lived for years.

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