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'The Colony' revisits the 2019 cartel murder of 9 women, children in Mexico

The Colony

The Colony

Originally aired: Sept. 6, 2022.

Three years ago this November, nine women and children were murdered in northern Mexico.

It's an area drug smugglers used to ferry illicit product into the United States. Members of a fundamentalist Mormon off-shoot had lived there for decades, they'd become successful farmers.

But even before members of the community were murdered in 2019, the history of that fundamentalist community had been tinged with controversy and struggles for power had led to dozens of murders. We're not talking about 100 years ago. Some were as recent as the late 1980s.

Author Sally Denton, a descendant of polygamists, investigated the 2019 murders, leading her down a path that, at times, was familiar, but at others, pretty disturbing, and she found the need to explore Mormon history to help uncover what might have led to those murders.

The result is a fascinating and alarming book:  The Colony: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land. Denton joined State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann to discuss her book.

“It was so grisly,” Denton said.

The original reporting showed blond, blue-eyed, American-looking women and children, possible tourists. The story unfolded slowly, revealing them to be members of polygamist off-shoots LeBaron and La Mora, with roots in the area dating back to to 1890s. 

“Why were these women on the road to begin with?” Denton said. “The crime itself … happened in broad daylight. And there were 100 assassins, which is overkill, to kill three women and children, unarmed, unescorted.”

Mexican media portrayed the massacre victims as being caught in the crossfire of cartels, and former President Donald Trump weaponized the incident as a political talking point. 

It wasn’t a mistake, Denton said, but it wasn’t clear why they were targeted.

“Having grown up in Vegas and written extensively about organized crime, the first thing you think when there's a hit like that on a family member, it's usually a message that's being sent to the real target,” she said. “There were a lot of people with motives.”

That morning, all three women had premonitions about taking off. 

“Whatever happened, how it came to be a perfect storm like that, is really what I grappled with.”

Denton has polygamist ties, as well, though she was not raised a Mormon. Her father was born a Mormon and her mother was born into polygamy. Though, she doesn’t think polygamy is the reason the families were targeted that day. 

The LeBaron family was also heavily armed, she said, but after the massacre, they joined a peace movement in Mexico.

“As long as there's an insatiable demand for drugs in the United States and an insatiable demand for guns in Mexico, I don't see anything changing,” she said.

What about the investigation? Very little happened, she said.

So far, about 50 or 60 people have been arrested and charged with organized crime, but no one has been charged with murder, and no one has been convicted. 

“In addition to the tragic humanity that was in play, it's a cautionary tale about the level of violence taking place that I think most Americans don't think about,” Denton said. 

Since the attack, many members of the La Mora community left and joined fundamentalist communities in Utah and Arizona. But the LeBarons “hunkered down further,” trying to get sovereignty from the Mexican government. 

She hopes readers realize it’s time to "get a handle on the violence" and to look at the role of women “in a subjugated society.”

Sally Denton, author, The Colony: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the online editor for Nevada Public Radio. She oversees and writes State of Nevada’s online and social media content.