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Mormon Families Gather to Mourn Those Killed in Mexican Ambush

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Mormon Families Gather to Mourn Those Killed in Mexican Ambush

LA MORA, Mexico—Residents of this breakaway Mormon community days ago were busy planning at least two weddings. Instead, they gathered Thursday to mourn the loss of several of their own, young children and mothers killed in a barbaric attack earlier in the week.

More than a thousand mourners, family members and friends of the prominent local Mormon clans have converged on this enclave of American-style ranch houses hard by the semidesert mountains of Sonora state in northern Mexico.

The dead were members of a group of women and their children, all dual U.S.-Mexican nationals, who were traveling in three separate vans when they were massacred by suspected drug cartel gunmen on Monday, an attack that has horrified Mexico and strained relations with the U.S. Eight children, most of whom suffered wounds, survived the assault.

The Miller family inside their home in La Mora, Sonora, on Wednesday.

Many of the mourners had come from another breakaway Mormon settlement, Colonia LeBarón, in the neighboring state of Chihuahua, traveling in a convoy of SUVs that arrived here as night fell Wednesday. Another set of memorial services will be held Friday at Colonia LeBarón.

As they wrestled with their grief, residents of the community struggled to understand the reasons for the attack and divine what consequences it could have on the stricken community, formed nearly a century ago by a dissident faction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mexican security officials say they believe gunmen attacked the convoy by mistake, believing them to be members of a rival cartel that has tried to take over the area for its smuggling corridors of methamphetamines and synthetic opioids to the U.S.

Virtually all here believe the attack was the result of a turf war between a drug cartel based in Chihuahua state and a local cartel whom most locals know and coexist with. But few believe it was a case of mistaken identity, and instead think that the family was targeted.

Loretta Miller says the attack ‘was no accident.’

“It was no accident. It was deliberate,” said Loretta Miller, 53, the mother-in-law of Rhonita Miller and grandmother of her four dead children. “We just don’t know why our family was targeted.”

Children who survived the massacre have told relatives that before being shot dead, Christina Marie Langford, one of the three mothers killed, jumped out of the car with her hands up in the air, yelling that there were only women and children in the van, said Kenneth Miller, uncle to four of the dead children. Miraculously, her 7-month-old daughter was found unharmed on the floor of the car.

Turf wars have exploded over trafficking routes in Sonora state controlled by a faction of the Sinaloa cartel known as the Salazars. The Sonora group has come into conflict with the La Linea group, the armed wing of the Juárez cartel, which controls much of Chihuahua state and the crucial transit point of Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso.

Officials are still piecing together an attack on a convoy of U.S. citizens by gunmen in northwestern Mexico, that left nine women and children dead. Photo: Herika Martinez/Getty Images

La Mora residents say that, despite their fear of the local cartel members, they have largely coexisted peacefully with them, underscoring how in much of rural Mexico, local communities often grow accustomed to living side by side with organized crime in an uneasy peace.

“They look out for us and let us know when we should not be on the roads,” said Ms. Miller. “We know them by name. They pretty much run the place here.”

Adam Langford, who has twice been mayor of La Mora, said the local cartel has helped keep petty crime such as theft and burglary down. “This was a paradise,” he said. “We’ve never had problems with any sicarios,” he said, using the term for cartel hit men.

He blames cartel gunmen from Chihuahua for this week’s tragedy.

Relatives of the dead say they hope the repulsion the massacre has provoked in the U.S. and Mexico will lead both countries to work to end the violence. They are conscious that as dual citizens of the U.S. and Mexico, and as members of a politically powerful minority in the U.S., they have a visibility and a platform that other victims of Mexico’s drug violence haven’t had.

Julian LeBarón at home in La Mora. He was the first person to arrive to the crime scene to find his family members.

Already, Utah’s two Republican Mormon senators,

Mitt Romney

and Mike Lee, have called the victims, promising their support. President Trump has condemned the act and offered Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador assistance in battling drug cartels.

“We want something to come of this,” said Kenneth Miller, an uncle of four of the dead children.

The future of the settlement, surrounded by pecan farms, grenadine gardens and cattle ranches, now appears in doubt. La Mora was founded decades ago by fundamentalist Mormons, part of a wave of migrants, including Sen. Romney’s great grandfather, who fled the U.S. after Congress outlawed polygamy in 1885.

All of the victims are members of the extended LeBarón clan, descended from a Mormon fundamentalist and polygamist, Alma Dayer LeBaron, who came to Mexico in the 1920s and founded Colonia LeBarón. One of his sons, Ervil LeBaron, founded his own breakaway sect and was convicted of ordering the murder of a rival cult leader, later dying in prison in the U.S.

Now, some of La Mora’s residents are contemplating leaving, not wanting to risk more dead children.

A child from the LeBarón family playing in the yard in La Mora, Sonora, on Wednesday.

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
Rhonita Miller was among those killed in Monday’s attack. An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled her given name as Rhinita. (Nov. 7, 2019)

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