What makes a Mexican Mormon

Mexico-Drug-WarA few weeks ago, a U.S. citizen and his brother-in-law were brutally murdered at their homes in Mexico in what looked like an organized-crime hit. Benjamin LeBaron had been vocally protesting the violence associated with Mexican drug gangs. His teenage brother had been kidnapped and a $1-million ransom had been demanded. Those early stories indicated there was a religion component. Turns out LeBaron and his relatives are part of a settlement of a Latter-day Saint splinter group. But the early stories didn't explain too much. Here's the snippet from the Los Angeles Times:

The men killed Tuesday belonged to a community founded during the 1920s by breakaway Mormons after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began cracking down on polygamists. The sect has a tumultuous and sometimes violent past. In 1993, a federal jury in Texas convicted three members of a sect offshoot in the slayings five years earlier of three former members and an 8-year-old child.

I would love to know more about that tumultuous and violent past but the story doesn't give details. Another story refers to the men who died as "part of a large fundamentalist Mormon community." But, near as I can tell, they're not actually part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints of Warren Jeffs fame. Yet another story says the group was founded by excommunicated Mormons.

But apart from the religious questions, the story itself was needing to be fleshed out. William Booth of the Washington Post's Foreign Service filed a lengthy piece doing just that this week. The story has so much to recommend for it -- particularly from a sociological angle -- but there are a few questions I have. Let's begin with the headline:

Ambushed by a Drug War Mormon Clans in Mexico Find Themselves Targets of the Cartels

I have no doubt that this group self-identifies as Mormon but the Associated Press Stylebook says:

SPLINTER GROUPS: The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other Latter Day Saints churches that resulted from the split after Smith's death. Among them is the Community of Christ, headquartered in Independence, Mo. From 1860 to 2001, it was called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (note the lack of a hyphen and the capitalized Day).

As we discussed many moons ago, it's easier to avoid calling the Community of Christ Mormons than it is other splinter groups. That's because they don't call themselves Mormon while many other splinter groups do. This AP entry is also a bit imprecise in that "the split" that occurred after Smith's death didn't produce the Latter Day Saints who practice polygamy. Those splits occurred later when the mainstream Mormon church began cracking down on those who practice polygamy. Some of those groups that practiced polygamy despite the church's change of teaching on the matter remained in Utah and surrounding states. Others fled to Mexico. (When the Post story was republished by the Seattle Times, it was given a more religiously precise headline.)

The bottom line is that this group should not be identified as Mormon without some serious qualifications. The story goes on to use the term "Mormon" 18 times. Only once is the difference between this group and the church headquartered in Salt Lake City clarified, midway through the story:

For all the violence swirling around them, the Mormons have mostly stayed out of the fight. Their ancestors first settled in Mexico in the 1880s, during the reign of dictator Porfirio Diaz, who offered the religious outcasts refuge from the harassment and prosecution they faced in the United States for their polygamist lifestyles. Some men in Colonia LeBaron and surrounding towns continue to follow what early Mormon prophets called "the Principle," marrying multiple wives and having dozens of children, though the custom here is fading. Polygamy was banned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the official Mormon Church, in 1890.

The Mormon community based in Colonia LeBaron, numbering about 1,000, has one motel, two grocery stores and lots of schools. There are no ATMs and no liquor sales. Many Mormons are conspicuous not only for their straw-colored hair and pale skin, but also for their new pickup trucks, large suburban-style homes with green front lawns, and big tracts of land for their pecans and cattle. They are wealthy, by the standards of their poor Mexican neighbors. Most of the Mormon men make their money working construction jobs in the United States; a young Mormon might work 10 years hanging drywall in Las Vegas before he has enough money to buy a plot of land to start his own pecan orchard here.

These paragraphs are a great example of why the story is so interesting and how it's chock full of information. Still, that clarification should have been made higher up in the story. As in, it should be done before we're told that this Mormon group drinks beer and swears!

If you're really looking for some religious context, head on over to the Salt Lake Tribune. Without using the word Mormon once, the reporters give tons of fascinating history about polygamists in Mexico. We even get the name of the church to which these breakaway Mormons belong -- something that didn't appear in any of the above stories. Turns out it's called the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times. Who knew? We also learn that the murder victim is related to the violent Utah polygamist Ervil LeBaron, a convicted murderer. But only by blood. Turns out they are part of different churches. The latter led the Church of the Lamb of God and was involved with the murder of the leader of another polygamist church -- the Salt Lake City-based Apostolic United Brethren.

All of these stories pose another curious detail, however. Here's how the Post refers to another kidnapping in the community:

Eric LeBaron was freed eight days after his abduction. His kidnappers simply told him to go home. But soon after, another member of the community, Meredith Romney, a 72-year-old bishop related to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was taken captive.

Romney is a former official LDS church leader -- president of the Colonia Juarez Chihuahua Temple from 1999 to 2004. And the LDS say he's still a member. So what does it mean that he was part of this polygamous, breakaway community? He was released without harm, I should add. I think what this story fails to show is that there is an LDS community in the area, a LeBaronite community and, for that matter, a Mennonite community. The way the Romney kidnapping is written up, however, it makes it seem like he is part of the polygamous community -- and I'm pretty sure that's not true.

What we do learn well from the Booth article, however, is that this story has much more to do with economics than with Mormons. Which raises another question, actually. None of these stories indicate what role other religious groups or non-governmental organizations are playing in this ridiculous bloodbath in Chihuahua. One would presume that the Roman Catholic Church is active there. Are they involved at all? It might be interesting to get their perspective on the matter. And, if they're not weighing in, why not?

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