Mormons massacred in Mexico. Why did church members start moving south 130 years ago?

Nine U.S. citizens, all members of a Mormon community in Mexico, were killed when gunmen opened fire on their SUVs in northern Mexico, the Associated Press reports.

The massacre killed six children and three women, according to CNN. Six other children were found alive and flown to a hospital in the United States, CNN reports.

Numerous reports linked the attack to the drug cartels.

The New York Times writes: “It was unclear whether the attackers intentionally targeted the family, which has historically spoken out about the criminal groups that plague the northern border states of Sonora and Chihuahua, or whether it was a case of mistaken identity.”

Mormons, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have a history of settling in Mexico dating back to 1885, according to the church.

The victims lived in a small Mormon community called La Mora in Mexico’s Senora state, about 70 miles south of the Arizona border, a relative told the AP. “Many of the church’s members were born in Mexico and thus have dual citizenship,” the AP said.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the families are “a mix of people who worship with the mainstream, Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and polygamous offshoots.”

The AP described La Mora as “a decades-old settlement founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” but the history of Mormon settlements in Mexico dates back to the late 1800s.

According to the church, Mormons began migrating to Chihuahua state in northern Mexico in 1885. Sanora and Chihuahua states make up much of the Mexico-U.S. border, adjacent to Arizona, New Mexico and part of Texas.

The Mormon migrants were escaping polygamy laws in the U.S., according to the church.

A story on the church website explains: “’We came into Mexico gladly because we had to,’ one early pioneer stated. At that time, United States marshals were zealously executing the Edmunds-Tucker Law against those practicing plural marriage in the United States. Rather than renounce family ties already established or go to prison, many persons fled to Mexico as a haven from persecution.”

One of the better known Mormon enclaves in Mexico is Colonia Juarez, in Chihuahua state. That’s where the great-grandfather of former governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate Sen. Mitt Romney moved his family to in the 1880s, according to Reuters.

Romney’s grandfather was born in Colonia Juarez and many people who still live there carry the Romney name, Reuters reported in 2012 as Romney fought for the Republican nomination for president.

After the attack, Romney said on Facebook, “Our prayers are with their families who have suffered such an unspeakable tragedy. The U.S. must work with Mexican officials to do everything we can to hold accountable those responsible for this senseless violence.”

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Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.