Mor­mon vil­lage shat­tered by car­tel wars

Mex­i­can Amer­i­cans led a peace­ful but wary ex­is­tence amid drug traf­fick­ers

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KEVIN SIEFF

la mora, mex­ico — For decades, this small vil­lage of Amer­i­can Mor­mons in the moun­tains of north­west­ern Mex­ico co­ex­isted peace­fully with the re­gion’s most pow­er­ful drug car­tel.

The Amer­i­cans rolled down their win­dows at the car­tel’s check­points. They nod­ded to the sicar­ios at lo­cal horse races and shared pomegranat­es dur­ing the har­vest. When the car­tel ve­hi­cles needed re­pair, La Mora’s Amer­i­can me­chanic fixed them for the same fee he charged his neigh­bors.

Un­til this week, liv­ing as an Amer­i­can in one of Mex­ico’s most law­less ar­eas meant main­tain­ing an un­easy truce with the traf­fick­ers. “Ba­si­cally it was, ‘We won’t bother you if you don’t bother us,’ ” said Adam Lang­ford, whose great-grand­fa­ther was one of the first Amer­i­can Mor­mons to move to Mex­ico in 1880.

Then on Mon­day, it be­came clear that no agree­ment could in­su­late La Mora from Mex­ico’s ris­ing vi­o­lence. That morn­ing, gun­men stopped three ve­hi­cles on a dirt road out­side of town and killed three women and six chil­dren, shoot­ing ba­bies at close range and tar­get­ing a mother as she begged for her chil­dren’s lives.

The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment has sug­gested that the ve­hi­cles were at­tacked by mis­take. But here in La Mora, that ex­pla­na­tion makes lit­tle sense — and has in­fu­ri­ated res­i­dents.

They say the fam­i­lies were tar­geted in­ten­tion­ally by a car­tel from the neigh­bor­ing state of Chi­huahua — maybe as re­venge for the com­mu­nity’s prox­im­ity to the lo­cal car­tel in Sonora, where La Mora is lo­cated. The mas­sacre comes amid an in­ten­si­fy­ing

turf war between the car­tels that res­i­dents had watched ner­vously for over a year.

“We watched as things got more tense, but we thought the same thing we al­ways did — they won’t come af­ter Amer­i­cans,” said Am­ber Lang­ford, 43, a mid­wife in La Mora. “They would stop us at a check­point and ask what we had. We’d say honey or pota­toes, and they’d let us go.”

La Mora was es­tab­lished in the 1950s, part of a move­ment of fun­da­men­tal­ist Mor­mons who broke away from the main­stream Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter­day Saints. For decades, they re­mained largely cut off from the United States and the rest of Mex­ico, with­out elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter. Chil­dren welded their own bi­cy­cles with metal rods.

Res­i­dents de­vel­oped pe­can farms and ranches and brought money back from sea­sonal work across the bor­der, and by the 1990s, the com­mu­nity was thriv­ing. They built homes de­signed for U.S. sub­urbs.

When friends in the United States asked about their safety, many ex­plained that they rarely locked their doors. They al­lowed their chil­dren to roam free in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. They had two school­houses — one for Spanish and one for English — and the stu­dents, flu­ent in both lan­guages, di­vided their time evenly.

But amid the idyll, the res­i­dents of La Mora rec­og­nized their com­mu­nity’s strate­gic im­por­tance. It was di­rectly off an un­pa­trolled dirt road that led to the United States bor­der, a gem in the crown of any traf­ficker.

In 2009, two men re­lated to the La Mora fam­i­lies but liv­ing in Chi­huahua were kid­napped and killed, al­legedly by the state’s big­gest drug car­tel. It was a shock, sug­gest­ing that maybe the com­mu­nity’s dual cit­i­zen­ship wasn’t enough to in­su­late its mem­bers from ris­ing vi­o­lence.

But many here be­lieved that their un­likely re­la­tion­ship with the car­tel in their state would pro­tect them. Al­though there was lit­tle po­lice pres­ence in the area, some felt the car­tel — some­times known as the Sonora car­tel — had come to serve as a kind of shadow po­lice force.

“The fact is that the state didn’t pro­vide law and or­der, but the car­tel did,” said Adam Lang­ford, a two-time mayor of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity.

Some­times, the men at the check­points would apol­o­gize af­ter stop­ping them.

“They would say, ‘Sorry guys, we are just guard­ing our ter­ri­tory,’ ” said Ken­neth Miller, 32.

In re­cent months, there were signs the peace was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. For the first time, the lo­cal car­tel de­manded that the fam­i­lies of La Mora stop buy­ing fuel in Chi­huahua, which would fund the ri­val car­tel. Un­fa­mil­iar men manned the usual check­points. They ap­peared jumpier, some­times point­ing guns at passersby. Ru­mors spread about the in­ten­si­fy­ing turf war between crim­i­nal groups.

“Peo­ple started ask­ing each other, is it time to move back to the U.S.?” said Am­ber Lang­ford. The pop­u­la­tion dwin­dled to about 100.

Across much of Mex­ico, the strength of the car­tels — and the in­abil­ity of the gov­ern­ment to con­trol their in­flu­ence — has been on daily dis­play.

The num­ber of homi­cides climbed to 33,341 last year. An­other 40,000 peo­ple are miss­ing.

The car­tel at­tacks have be­come par­tic­u­larly brazen. In Au­gust, 27 peo­ple were killed in a Ver­acruz bar when the doors were locked and the bar was set alight. Last month, 14 po­lice of­fi­cers were killed in an am­bush in Mi­choa­can. Also last month, in the city of Cu­li­a­can, the Si­naloa car­tel over­pow­ered gov­ern­ment se­cu­rity forces and forced the re­lease of Ovidio Guzmán López, one of the coun­try’s best-known drug traf­fick­ers.

Through it all, Pres­i­dent An­drés Manuel López Obrador has re­sisted calls to toughen his se­cu­rity poli­cies. In­stead, he’s try­ing to pro­vide jobs to lure peo­ple away from the car­tels. He has handed out mil­lions of schol­ar­ships to keep kids in school.

“We aren’t go­ing to change the strat­egy,” he re­it­er­ated Thurs­day. “We are go­ing to con­tinue to ad­dress the causes be­hind in­se­cu­rity and vi­o­lence.”

Res­i­dents of La Mora have taken their own pre­cau­tions. They be­gan trav­el­ing in con­voys when mov­ing between Sonora and Chi­huahua. They de­cided it was time to se­cure le­gal firearms.

On Mon­day, when the three women and their chil­dren left town, Rhonita Miller paused be­fore leav­ing. She told her moth­erin-law, Loretta Miller: “I have a bad feel­ing about this. Maybe I shouldn’t go.”

Less than an hour later, Rhonita Miller was killed with her four chil­dren. When res­i­dents found her car, it was on fire, ap­par­ently set alight by gun­men.

The other vic­tims were found later. Two sur­viv­ing chil­dren walked for hours through the wilder­ness af­ter es­cap­ing. One of them re­counted that gun­men had fired at him as he ran into the brush.

Within hours, the mas­sacre sent a shock wave through Mex­ico and the United States, re­new­ing ques­tions about Mex­ico’s fail­ure to se­cure its ter­ri­tory, prompt­ing Pres­i­dent Trump to of­fer up the fire­power of the U.S. mil­i­tary.

The res­i­dents of La Mora be­gan pre­par­ing for the fu­ner­als. They made wooden coffins. Am­ber Lang­ford, the mid­wife who de­liv­ered the chil­dren who were killed, now em­balmed their bodies.

Hun­dreds of peo­ple ar­rived from north­ern Mex­ico and the United States on Thurs­day for the fu­neral of Dawna Lang­ford, 43, and her chil­dren Trevor, 11, and Ro­gan, 2, in the fam­ily’s back­yard. Troops from Mex­ico’s na­tional guard stood near the en­trance.

Fam­ily mem­bers wept as they spoke of their loss, re­mem­ber­ing the way Dawna told sto­ries, how Trevor de­voured waf­fles, how Ro­gan couldn’t seem to stop smil­ing.

“When I heard what hap­pened, I just felt a help­less­ness for my fam­ily,” Ryan Lang­ford, Dawna’s son, said through tears in his eu­logy.

As the com­mu­nity mourned, mem­bers be­came aware of how their or­deal had rein­vig­o­rated a de­bate about how to end Mex­ico’s years of blood­shed.

“I’m not say­ing I want the U.S. to come down here to re­venge my fam­ily,” said Ken­neth Miller, whose sis­ter-in-law was killed, “but to help all of Mex­ico.”

For now, their quiet town has been flooded with Mex­i­can se­cu­rity per­son­nel. The troops will in­evitably leave in the com­ing weeks. Ev­ery­one here seems to agree: Any re­prieve from vi­o­lence, in the civil war between car­tels, is only tem­po­rary.

“The ques­tion we all have here,” Adam Lang­ford said, “is how does this thing end?”

CARLOS JASSO/REUTERS

Pall­bear­ers carry the re­mains of Dawna Lang­ford, 43, and her sons Trevor, 11, and Ro­gan, 2, in La Mora, Mex­ico. Nine peo­ple were killed this week in an at­tack that ap­pears to have tar­geted mem­bers of a Mex­i­can Amer­i­can fun­da­men­tal­ist Mor­mon com­mu­nity.

LUIS TORRES/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTO­CK

ABOVE: Ve­hi­cles head to fu­ner­als for mem­bers of the La Mora com­mu­nity killed this week in a mas­sacre in which gun­men stopped three ve­hi­cles on a road out­side town. Three women and six chil­dren died as a re­sult. BELOW, LEFT: Peo­ple at­tend the fu­neral of Dawna Lang­ford and her sons Trevor and Ro­gan. “When I heard what hap­pened, I just felt a help­less­ness for my fam­ily,” Ryan Lang­ford, Dawna’s son, said through tears in his eu­logy. BELOW, RIGHT: Com­mu­nity mem­bers in La Mora build coffins for those killed in the at­tack.

MARCO UGARTE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

KEVIN SIEFF/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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