Deaths in Sonora

The two times I’ve tried writing about the murders of the breakaway Mormon group in Sonora and Chihuahua states, I ran up against the problem that a tragedy is a tragedy is a tragedy. Killing mothers in front of their children is one of the ghastlier things people can do, and nothing that sect has done in the past, or is perceived to have done, merits that.

At the same time, it seemed that the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times received a degree of public sympathy that’s never accorded to other victims of Mexican gangs (I decline to call drug gangs “cartels”.) The barbarisms criminal organisations in this country sometimes practice is extreme. They’re largely inflicted on rival gang members, and for this reason they apparently they get little attention from outside media. On the other hand, the LeBaron community, sometimes known as this from their founder Alma Dayer LeBaron, has never before received such supportive coverage.


Alma Dayer LeBaron, photo taken prior to 1951.

Polygamy, which included older men marrying young girls, was airbrushed out of some reports I read, as were the group’s squabbles with neighbours over its nut orchards. Nuts use immense quantities of water, making it unavailable to other farmers: a dispute in 2018 cited 395 illegally drilled wells on the church’s properties, which allegedly contravened a 1957 contract with the municipality. And in rural Mexico, land and access to the water it needs are virtually religious principles.

Some people have praised the group’s defiance of its scofflaw neighbours, and for sure, their stance wasn’t lacking in guts. But here I stumble around victim-blaming, since I always take the view that outsiders who choose not to accept the norms of mainstream Mexican society are insulting that society. Very well, stumble I will, because some of the facts point in a certain direction.

It suited the church’s purposes that law enforcement and the local community generally ignored them on the plural marriage issue decades ago, but later that insouciance came back to bite them. They asked for protection that was unlikely to come, and for the right to create their own security service, something no-one in Mexico can do legally.

Mormonism in general here exists in a slightly uneasy relationship with the Catholic majority. The faith, along with Pentecostalism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other imports, clashes not just on matters of belief, but on matters of culture and family networks. They are many cases of relatives who’ve not spoken in decades after a conversion.

Perhaps the farmers of Sonora and Chihuahua know nothing of the doctrinal conflicts within Mormonism; but while the main Latter-Day Saints church is still home to the vast majority of believers in Joseph Smith’s revelations, there are hundreds of separate factions and sects today. Usually, their reason for existing is that Smith taught plural marriage, which the mainstream church still acknowledges to be a valid doctrine, while excoriating any members who wish to practice it. It was abandoned by the main Church 130 years ago, in order to secure statehood for Utah under US law.

This created great hardship among existing polygamous families, who were told to split up and among followers convinced of the doctrine as scripturally sound, based on Old Testament teachings.

Within the LeBaron family, there have been various splits and not a few murders, mostly under the crazy direction of Ervil LeBaron (1925-1981). If you try to grasp all the details, you’ll need a large spreadsheet, and you’ll be scratching your head over the Why? of it all.

I don’t think the women and kids caught in the slaughter on November 4 were simply mistaken for members of another gang. I think the killings were deliberate, and aimed to send a signal to the group that it had crossed too many lines. The fact that the farms have now been partly evacuated shows the message was delivered. As for the eventual outcome, I’ve no idea beyond assuming that there’ll be no good result.

I was struck by several news stories after the killings that spoke of Mexico, yet again, as being or becoming a failed state. It would be silly to deny or downplay the impact gang violence has on the country as a whole, and nobody who lives here is unaware of the possibility of it moving into new areas. My area, thankfully, has been very quiet, and seems to be a kind of neutral zone, even though the gangs operate in neighbouring cities.

What strikes me as the unconsidered fact in this debate is the question of what Mexicans would view as a “successful” state. While there’s no objection to American-style wealth and success overall, that has yet to be a viable goal for many people here. They place their confidence in their society, their families (despite often horrible squabbles and feuds) and their specific communities. The peacefulness of this area owes, I think, a lot to the persistence of that cohesion. Gringos have few problems here if we respect Mexicanidad, the Mexican-ness, of the people around us. If we forget that, problems arise, and fast.

A sentiment once shared with me by a tour guide at the archeological site of Xochicalco has haunted me since he mentioned it a dozen or more years ago. He’d been an accountant in Los Angeles, with his own business, until it collapsed in a recession, and he said he was now happy simply to make ends meet by showing people around a significant part of his heritage.

“An economy always goes into recession sooner or later,” he told me. “But the culture never goes into recession.”

In saying that, he embodied a key feeling Mexicans have about their country. It took two revolutions a century apart, in the early 1800s and in 1910, to establish its independence from Spain, and then from the abusive power of rich landowners.

But if you’re primarily rooted not in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but in soil, family and (for most people here) the Virgin of Guadalupe, “success” is essentially defined in different terms to how it would be in the US or Canada.

That notion offers neither help nor hope to the Mormon cultists mourning their dead or their former homes. But it does, I feel, help define the issue of what a “failed” state would or would not be. Government isn’t the sole determining factor in the Mexican situation.

Perhaps if the Church of the Firstborn had grasped that theirs wasn’t the only bunch around that doesn’t offer its primary loyalty to a government, the events earlier this month might have transpired differently. Mormon dreams of a separate kingdom under their concept of God, attempted several times in Nineteenth Century America, were always impractical. I doubt they’ll abandon their central goals now, since martyrdom fuels fanaticism, and doesn’t often quench it. But the failed state in this case is Church of the Firstborn’s attempt to create a self-sufficient community in the middle of someone else’s. The eventual outcome was horrific, but not wholly unpredictable.

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