The brutal killing of nine members of an American family in northern Mexico on Monday highlights the long history of religious fundamentalist settlers in the region.
The LeBarón family, some of whose members were targeted in Monday’s attack, has lived in the turbulent border region for decades, part of a wave of settlers who moved to Mexico in the early 20th century seeking at the time to practice polygamy, which was forbidden by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today polygamy has largely faded from the community.
Long unaffiliated with the mainstream church, fundamentalist Mormon communities in northern Mexico originated in the late 1880s, when a number of families moved to the states of Chihuahua and Sonora. The Mormons who put down stakes included Miles Park Romney, the great-grandfather of Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah and the party’s presidential nominee in 2012.
Religious communities that date themselves to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often call themselves Mormon. The mainstream church has abandoned the moniker, in part because of negative connotations around polygamy.
After the United States criminalized polygamy in 1882, the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time, John Taylor, encouraged some members to settle in northern Mexico as a way to escape federal prosecution.
“They were seen as colonies of refuge,” said W. Paul Reeve, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Utah. “The Mexican government said they would look the other way regarding polygamy, they were desirous to have people settle their northern frontier.”
The church formally abandoned polygamy in 1904, and announced that anyone who practiced polygamy, which the church called plural marriage, would be excommunicated. Some families continued the practice and established their own splinter churches or religious communities.
Though some of these families’ descendants moved back to the United States during the Mexican Revolution, many remained, prospering as farmers and ranchers. To this day, descendants speak both English and Spanish, and some have retained United States citizenship.
Some small, distinct groups of fundamentalist Mormon families continue to practice polygamy, while others that date themselves to the original colonies do not.
It is difficult to estimate the number of families in the northern Mexico region that still practice polygamy, but it is “very small,” Professor Reeve said. He estimated that in Utah there are about 30,000 people who are part of fundamentalist, polygamous Mormon sects.
Separately, the mainstream church has more than 1 million members in Mexico, the church’s largest population outside the United States.
The church, headquartered in Utah, has 16 million adherents worldwide. A spokesman said that church was “heartbroken” to hear of the tragedy.
“Though it is our understanding that they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our love, prayers and sympathies are with them as they mourn and remember their loved ones,” said Eric Hawkins, the spokesman.
The settlements in northern Mexico have been plagued by violence in the past. In 2009, gunmen in the town of Colonia LeBarón killed Benjamín LeBarón, a Mormon anti-violence activist, as well as his brother-in-law, Luis Widmar. The town had been settled in the 1940s by Alma Dayer LeBarón, a Mormon patriarch who was excommunicated for polygamy.
A splinter group from the area led by a polygamous LeBaron descendant, Ervil LeBaron, carried out killings of opponents in Mexico and parts of the United States. Ervil LeBaron died in a Utah prison in 1981 at the age of 56.
The post Brutal Killings Spotlight Small Religious Sect in Mexico appeared first on New York Times.