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Massacres of American citizens are highlighting the Mormon community with deep roots in Mexico

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The roadside murders of nine American citizens in northern Mexico have drawn attention to the scattered communities of Mormons who settled in the country over a century ago to escape persecution.

The three women and 14 children who ambushed attackers on Monday as they drove from the city of Bavispe in the state of Sonora to Arizona, were among other things descendants of a fundamentalist Mormon community that lived in the country for decades.

Early Wednesday criminal investigators in northern Mexico said that a suspect had been arrested and was investigating possible connections with the dead. A Mexican official had previously said that the killers may have mistaken the family for members of a rival drug cartel.

Some victims shared the surname LeBaron. They were the family of a prominent fundamentalist Mormon family of the same name, said Daniel LeBaron, a cousin of one of the victims, Rhonita Maria Miller. Daniel LeBaron lives in Colonia LeBaron in the state of Chihuahua, a community founded by fundamentalist Mormons in 1924 that has close ties with the LeBarons of Bavispe.

The LeBarons belong to & # 39; a handful of large groups of fundamentalists & # 39 ;, said Patrick Mason, a historian of Mormonism at Utah State University. But he added: “The name LeBaron in recent decades has usually been associated with violence. Unfortunately, this incident only contributes to that association. & # 39;

The family is perhaps best known for a series of murders committed in the 1970s and 1980s, in both Mexico and the United States, by Ervil LeBaron – once the & # 39; Mormon Manson & # 39; called – and a group of his followers.

In 1972, two followers of Ervil LeBaron shot his brother, Joel, after the brothers argued about the leadership of their religious faction. Ervil was convicted of the crime, but the conviction was subsequently annulled. He was later tried and convicted in the murder of rival polygamist leader Dr. Rulon Allred in 1977. In 1993, his story was turned into a TV drama, "Prophet of Evil: The Ervil LeBaron Story."

In 1993, a Texas federal jury convicted three members of a foothills from the LeBarons community in the deaths of three former members and an 8-year-old child. An expert estimated that members of the group had killed as many as 30 people over the years.

Fundamentalist Mormons share their origins with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but broke there from the early 20th century after the US government banned polygamy and the Mormon church banned practice.

"The government had passed a series of criminal laws and started taking possession of church property and threatened to seize church temples," Mason said. "The President of the Church in 1890 said he had a vision of God that temples would be taken away and it would be better to give up polygamy so that Mormons could retain the core of their faith and not flee."

Mormons that supported polygamy had fled to Mexico and Canada since the 1880s. In Mexico, polygamist Mormons purchased 50,000 hectares in the state of Chihuahua, where they settled along the Piedras Verdes River in a mountainous, remote area. Mormons also formed communities in the state of Sonora. Over the years, many have achieved success as farmers and farmers.

They include Miles Park Romney, the great-grandfather of Senator Mitt Romney, whose father, George Romney, was born in Mexico. Miles Park Romney, who had four wives, moved to rural Chihuahua in 1885. George Romney would eventually return to the United States, where he was elected governor of Michigan and unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

Mitt Romney, who was the Republican standard bearer in 2012, is a member of the LDS Church, not of the fundamentalist communities. His family members in Mexico left polygamy generations ago and still run farmland in the northwestern state of Chihuahua.

Most members of the extended LeBaron clan no longer practice polygamy and the family nowadays includes Catholics and people who are not religious.

The LDS church has made efforts in recent decades to distinguish itself from fundamentalists, but is often confronted with confusion because of their shared history.

"We are deeply saddened to hear of the tragedy that has affected these families in Mexico," said Eric Hawkins, LDS Church spokesperson. & # 39; Although we understand 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. & # 39;

Mason, who & # 39; The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South & # 39; wrote, said that descendants of fundamentalist Mormon communities in Mexico today are often dual American-Mexican citizens who often travel across the American-Mexican border to visit relatives. The diverse group includes those who practice polygamy and others who do not, and some even participate in LDS services. Interracial and inter-religious marriages have grown in popularity.

"They tend to speak English and Spanish, live in extensive communities with large, often related families, and usually don't want to get into many problems," Mason said. He said there are thousands of fundamentalist Mormons in northern Mexico, although no reliable count has been made. There are more than a million LDS church members in Mexico, the largest number of followers of the faith group after those in the United States.

The extended LeBaron family has for years spoken out against violence against drug cartels in Mexico and for looser arms laws, and said members must protect themselves. The region where the attack took place on Monday is being challenged by two criminal groups, the Sinaloa cartel and La Linea, which is linked to the Juarez cartel.

In 2009, family member and anti-violence activist Benjamin LeBaron was shot after speaking out against human traffickers who kidnapped his brother for a ransom of $ 1 million.

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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