Kingdom Come | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

September 02, 2015 News » Cover Story

Kingdom Come 

Residents of two remaining Mormon colonies in northern Mexico keep the faith—and a foot in two worlds

Pin It

On a humid August night in 2008, in the town of Colonia Dublán in Chihuahua, Mexico, Cristina saw a young man fly through her front door and dive onto the floor of her home as AK-47 rounds hammered into the plaster above her. She was sure it was her son. Then he looked up and an overhead light revealed the features of a youth she didn't know.

The youth jumped to his feet and ran outside. She followed him screaming, her husband chasing after her to the small plaza across the street where three crumpled bodies lay: her 17- and 18-year-old sons and an acquaintance she later found out had been the target of a sicario—a drug-gang assassin. Her children were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The parents' names have been changed at their request.

The vicious, brutal rattle of assault rifles had become commonplace in recent years in Nuevo Casas Grandes and the neighboring tiny community of Colonia Dublán, just 1 1/2 hours south of El Paso, Texas.

Cristina's 17-year-old was dead. Cristina's oldest son, one month away from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, cried out in agony in her arms. A relative of Cristina's put her eldest son into his pick-up truck and raced to the hospital, but doctors and nurses refused to treat his wounds for fear of gang reprisal. He died shortly after reaching the hospital.

"It is a terrible thing, so hard to understand, how far cruelty can go," says Cristina's second husband and the boys' stepfather, Eduardo, in Spanish, seven years after their murders. His meaty hands move back and forth around the edge of the round table as if he is trying to understand what is before him, as he recalls the boys going out for tacos with their cousins and attending Spanish-language LDS ward dances. "Their world was the church, work and school," he says.

A mist hangs over the treeless plaza, lending it an otherworldly silence, a place haunted by a past that Cristina and Eduardo face every day when they leave home for work. In the Mormon faith, you and your partner are "sealed" for life and eternity. Cristina says while she would like to leave, she won't move from the house, because her first husband left her the property. "He told me before he died, first he would come for our children, then he would come for me," she says.

While many Mormons left Colonia Dublán for Utah after the eruption of cartel-related killings and kidnappings in the mid-to-late 2000s, some chose to stick it out, preferring to live in what several call "an LDS bubble," rather than to start a new life elsewhere.

A little over 1,000 miles south of Utah, the Mormon colonies Colonia Dublán and its close neighbor, Colonia Juárez, provide a unique perspective on the relationship between the Anglo and Latino Mormon communities in the Beehive State. In the colonies' struggles to create a future for its children and ward off the violence that both Anglos and Mexican Mormons faced during the years kidnappers and killers roamed the streets after dusk with impunity, residents have remained defiantly proud of the colonies and their independent spirit. That sense of uniqueness is testament to the strength of the Mormon culture that defines those communities—even as economics, wealth and race still divide them.


Saints in Mexico
Three years after the U.S. government banned polygamy in 1882, the LDS Church dispatched 350 church members—mostly polygamists—to live in Mexico. "The Mexican colonies were to be a refuge for many who had practiced plural marriage and would not abandon their families," Don L. Searle and LaVon B. Whetten wrote in an August 1985 Ensign story on the Chihuahua colonies. "But the colonies would also serve," former LDS Church President John Taylor said, "as something much more enduring—a focal point for spreading the gospel in Mexico."

A few hundred hardy souls, living in overturned wagons and dirt dugouts built irrigation canals and developed farms. More than 3,000 Mormons eventually settled eight colonies in northern Chihuahua, but shortly after Pancho Villa launched the Mexican revolution in 1910 on the colonies' doorstep in northern Chihuahua, the local church leaders voted to return to the United States. Fewer than half of the original settlers later returned to Mexico, and "isolation, transportation difficulties, and the lack of schools beyond the primary level caused all but two of them—Colonia Juárez and Colonia Dublán—to be permanently abandoned," Searle and Whetten wrote.

The LDS Church would itself ban polygamy in 1890, and the practice eventually fizzled out in the two colonies. A thousand people now live in Colonia Dublán, a few hundred of them descendants of the 1880s Utah and Arizona pioneers. Many of these Anglo-Mormon families own and run the peach, apple, cherry and pecan farms immediately to the south.

It's a 20-minute drive from Dublán to the other surviving Mormon colony, Colonia Juárez—past the windowless, sprawling American-owned assembly plants that dominate neighboring Nuevo Casas Grandes, through the sleepy, historical small town of Casas Grandes, up and over a hill where the gleaming white walls of the LDS temple standing guard over the Piedras Verdas valley comes into view. The valley is home to Colonia Juárez and the church-owned Juárez Academy, which since 1904 has played a key role in producing bilingual missionaries to spread the church's gospel.

The academy's contribution to the LDS Church's growth drew high praise from the church's then-president, Gordon B. Hinckley, who, according to BYU archives, told Mormons gathered on the academy's sports field in 1997 that "these little colonies in northern Mexico have made such a tremendous contribution. ... I didn't know before that this place had furnished more mission presidents than any other stake in the church." But while Hinckley told the crowd he saw their geographical isolation as their strength, these two colonies still struggle to find a future for their children beyond producing fruit or leaving for their missions and never coming back.

Game Changer
One person who hopes to provide the colonies with job opportunities is Utah immigration attorney Aaron Tarin. The lifelong LDS Church member has long been a singular voice in Utah's immigration-attorney community. In a City Weekly cover story ["Prophet Motive," January 7, 2010], he criticized Anglo Mormons for failing to acknowledge the significance of LDS scripture which foretold that Mormon Latinos would be key to the Second Coming. The church's concerted missionary efforts in South America, for which Mexico and the colonies in particular serve as a springboard, is built on the belief that Latino and other non-Anglo converts to Mormonism "shall blossom as the rose," which, according to scripture, will be one of the signs of the return of Jesus Christ.

In July 2015, a City Weekly reporter accompanied Tarin and his parents, Jose and Ovidia, who grew up in the colonies, on a trip to northern Mexico. Tarin spent his childhood summers in the colonies and hoped to bring his wife and children there for a visit, but his wife is still fearful about violence her in-laws had experienced in recent years.

Tarin was there to evaluate the operations of two call centers he's set up in Colonia Dublán and in the state capital of Chihuahua to provide telephonic paralegal services for his undocumented clients in Utah. By outsourcing to Mexico, he says, he can provide much cheaper and more effective legal services for the undocumented, as well as what Tarin calls "handholding" for immigrant clients from South America. That can include guidance on navigating language, culture and bureaucracy in the United States, dealing with tax issues, insurance, landlords and contracts. He calls his employees "technical melting-pot experts."

click to enlarge 3.jpg

In 2014, Tarin set up a company called Outlaw Infomatics, with attorneys and technology experts as investors, to fund call centers in Chihuahua City and Colonia Dublán. So far, the company has invested $350,000, he says, and plans to at least double that investment this year.

But doing business in Mexico isn't easy. "In Mexico, you have to know somebody or pay somebody to get anything done," Tarin says. "One of the primary challenges I confronted on my trip was how to do everything in a 100 percent ethical and legal manner, when many things can't get done that way in Mexico."

When Tarin visited Colonia Dublán businessman Kelly Jones, he learned that a public utility was far advanced in laying down fiber optics in the colony, crucial for expanding Tarin's call centers. In a community that has doggedly bet on agriculture, the possibility of emerging high-tech businesses excites Jones. "You could literally change the history of the colonies," he tells Tarin.

A Need for Tech
Tarin compares the colonies' potential economic prospects with the ongoing tech boom in Lehi. "The same reasons why Google and Adobe are flocking to Utah now, those same reasons exist in the colonies," he says. There's "a highly educated bilingual talent [pool] to choose from, who are willing to take less pay to stay in Utah."

Tarin's cousin, Ginna Cervantes, and her husband, Elco Bencomo, operate Tarin's colony-based call center in a cinder block room at the back of their simple, three-room house. Both attended the Juárez Academy and speak fluent English.

"I think Aaron is trying to give people a reason to stay here," Cervantes says. "There is no work, there is not a good reason."

Bencomo grew up in a two-room adobe-walled house with his parents and six siblings. "I never knew I had a future," he says. "I thought I'd end up like my dad and brother working on the orchards, but I never wanted to wear dirty clothes and gloves to work. I wanted a better life."

click to enlarge 4.jpg

Bencomo tried out for the Juárez Academy basketball team, even after a neighbor advised him not to, since they chose only Anglos. Bencomo didn't make the cut. "I felt anger, I had practiced so much. So, I practiced more." His second attempt was successful. He made friends with his Anglo teammates. Still, "I did feel ashamed inviting them to my house. They had swimming pools, and I had nothing—a basketball hoop made of a bicycle tire." Nevertheless, it was those friendships, he says, combined with serving an LDS mission, that opened his eyes to a future through education.

Cervantes expresses gratitude to the academy as she stands under a tree near its entrance, having enrolled her children for the 2015-16 academic year. "Everything I've accomplished in my life, I got it from here—I met my husband, we grew up with the same principles, the same goals, the same circle of friends in a purely LDS environment. We were taught to look forward to live like that."

But while she loved her time as a student at the academy, come graduation time, "the gringos were going on a mission or going to BYU in Utah," Ginna says. "In my time [the mid-1990s], there was only one college here in town. There were no options. Everybody was worried." Now there are five small colleges.

Bencomo has a Mexican friend who achieved a master's degree but found no work in the colonies, except as a cashier in a market. "I don't know why [my friends] stay," he says. "Maybe they have their families here. It's very hard to start in another place. Life is hard everywhere."

After Bencomo's LDS mission, he attended college in Chihuahua City and married Cervantes. They wanted to return to the colonies, but wondered, "Whatever would we do here if we came back?" he says. They wanted their children to be bilingual, so they prayed and fasted, he says, about the decision, deciding, "we'd come and see what happened."

Some of Cervantes' friends ended up working for families of former academy peers. "It is kind of sad working for people you grew up with," she says.

Cervantes says that for Mexican-Mormons, progress in the colonies is limited. "There is a line marked: 'Here is all the way you can go, no farther than that.'"

But Bencomo disagrees. "If there was ever a culture line that should divide us, I don't think it's there—or, at least, not there anymore."

Roll of the Dice
Aaron Tarin's father, Jose, decided to leave the colonies immediately after graduating from the Juárez Academy in 1975. Jose's father worked in the Anglo-owned fields and died of heart failure when Jose was 13. When Jose told his stake president he was leaving for the United States, he says the Anglo-Mormon told him to stay, and to be a laborer. "He was very upset," Jose says. "The mentality of them is, 'Stay here, work for us.'"

Ovidia went to school in nearby Colonia Dublán with Anglo-Mormon children who had last names like Romney, Pratt and Whettan. "My best friends were gringos and only spoke English," she says.

Being surrounded by these white Mormon families "was a blessing" for his mother, Aaron says. "They brought culture, a different world view—that there is opportunity, that there is hope."

And yet hope in terms of work beyond the fields was in short supply, and so Jose and Ovidia , who at that time were only acquaintances from the academy, separately traveled to Utah, "to explore the American dream, to see what it's all about," Jose says. They later met in Salt Lake City, dated and married. Ovidia graduated from LDS Business College and worked for a bank, before the couple moved to Delta, Utah, where Jose worked as a trainee electrician at a power plant.

click to enlarge 5.jpg

On the July 2015 trip to Mexico, Aaron visited the house where his mother grew up. Jose describes it as having been simply a kitchen and a bedroom, with mattresses stacked in the bedroom. "It was pretty bad," he says. The shack is now overgrown by weeds and trees. Aaron has to jump over a stream and push through brush to reach a door that won't open.

"My parents were pioneers," Aaron says, as he ponders the tangled branches masking the walls. "They went from an income of less than $5 a day into the middle class of the United States. They bet big, they risked a lot to go, and it paid off in a manner I can barely perceive. Why I didn't end up in this decaying little house, I don't know."

The Best of Both Worlds
Colony residents are known to keep a foot in both worlds.

There have also been significant Anglo-Mormon imports from the colonies to the United States, notably colony-born George Romney, auto-industry CEO, governor of Michigan from 1963-69, and father of Mitt—as well as chemist Henry Eyring, father of LDS Church First Counselor to the Presidency Henry B. Eyring. Anglo-Mormons in the colonies typically hold both Mexican and American passports and speak fluent Spanish, with barely an accent.

The Joneses and the Robinsons are two of the surviving Anglo-Mormon families that can be found in large numbers in the colonies. Jeffrey Max Jones says the problem the area has always faced is the cyclical nature of its agrarian economy: "You have employment in the harvest and planting season. What do you do the rest of the year?"

His brother Kelly Jones runs a food-manufacturing business in Colonia Dublán and is a LDS stake president. He describes the colony as "a sleepy little Mormon town with good values," where milk cows, orchards of peaches, apples and cherries, and fields of chilies have long defined the landscape. "Everybody believes if you have 10 hectares of land, you'll be successful."

And that historical agrarian focus is the problem. The community "has fallen in a hole," he says, mired in a mix of technological ignorance and apathy. "Your dad has a farm, and you have six brothers and sisters," he says. Hypothetically, the children graduate from Juárez Academy, go to BYU and, typically, "one gets to come back to run the farm. That's why the colonies don't grow. We've got to find something else to do."

The main thoroughfare in Colonia Dublán divides the Mormon colony between spacious homes with pristine lawns—some owned by old Anglo-Mormon families—on the west side of the street where the Dublán ward house stands, and the more humble, dusty streets on the east where members of the Mexican Mormon community mostly live. That's where Marvin Longhurst grew up. "My family was born on the wrong side of the tracks," he writes in an email. "We never really felt accepted in the Dublán Ward. Not even as married adults."

Longhurst says the wards were given names rather than numerical designations to avoid the stigma that "the 1st Ward was better, and the 2nd was next best, and so forth." So Las Huertas is the Spanish-language ward nearest the orchards, while Lomas ward was named after the muddy hills created in nearby dirt streets during the rainy season.

Longhurst and his wife, Gay, have embraced the Mexican Mormon community, and seven years ago, started attending the Spanish-language Las Huertas ward. Initially, Marvin was a counselor; then, for six years, a bishop. "We love the Mexican people. They accept us," Marvin, a pecan farmer, writes in an email. They now teach a course on self-reliance as service missionaries at Las Huertas. "We are using the principles of the gospel to teach providing enough for yourself," he says. His wife Gay adds, "We're helping them become gods and goddesses."

Cultural Glue
Colonia Juárez features both the kind of old Victorian homes still found in rural Utah and Spanish-influenced ramblers that would not be out of place on the east benches of the Wasatch Front. At its heart stands the sandstone-bricked Juárez Academy, effectively the cultural and social glue that binds the two colonies together.

In the school lobby, on the left, stands a statute of Joseph Smith holding an ax; on the right, a bust of Benito Juárez, five-time Mexican president and national hero. Here, Anglo and Mexican Mormons study side by side, along with a few non-Mormon students whose parents can afford the tuition fees and don't mind their children attending LDS seminary on a daily basis.

The Juárez Academy displays a distinctly American spirit. There are homecoming and prom dances, pep rallies for sports teams and even an English-language school yell chanted after the Mexican national anthem "Mexicanos, al Grito de Guerra" is sung at morning assembly: "All things you don't have elsewhere in Mexico," says Tarin's cousin, Cervantes.

"If something happened to the high school, we would have to think if we have to stay," Michele Robinson says. She met her husband and Dublán-native, Eric, in Utah. They married and, in 2000, he brought them to the colonies, where he has since run the family farm.

While Anglo-Mormon graduates of the Juárez Academy can typically afford to leave for the States and attend LDS institutions such as Brigham Young University, BYU-Idaho and LDS Business College, Mexican Mormons, even while qualifying for scholarships, usually attend colleges in Mexico, because their families lack the resources to send them to Utah. And when they graduate from college, the lack of jobs in the colonies and neighboring Nuevo Casas Grandes beyond assembly-plant positions means they leave for Chihuahua City or beyond to look for work.


An Eerie Calm
Compared to the challenges the community has faced keeping its graduates, the cascade of violence the colonies faced in the mid-2000s was much more destructive.

Cervantes, a Juárez Academy graduate, says the first she knew something had changed in her community was while watching a LDS stake basketball tournament. A woman ran onto the court and grabbed a player. "You need to go home," she screamed. Cervantes found out several days later that the player's oldest brother, and then his brother-in-law—had been kidnapped. The Anglo-Mormon family brought in the FBI, but the victims were never found. "That was when we found out something big and bad was coming," Cervantes says.

There are many local theories as to why the colonies found themselves besieged by ruthless kidnappers and sicarios to the point that, in 2008, there were more killings per capita in Nuevo Casas Grandes—which includes Colonia Dublán—than in the, until recently, infamously violent Ciudad Juárez 112 miles away. Most argue that pressure from Mexico's war on the drug cartels not only drove cash-strapped gangs out of Ciudad Juárez and into Nuevo Casas Grandes, but also encouraged would-be imitators to employ similar secuestro-exprés (quick-kidnapping) tactics for financial gain.

Several colony residents interviewed by City Weekly requested that the names of well-known criminals not be referenced in this story, for fear of reprisals. Local newspapers reported very little on the ongoing violence. Journalists who did cover it faced intimidation or even death, such as with Web radio news reporter Norberto Miranda Madrid. Known as "El Gallito" ("The Tough Guy"), Madrid worked on a tiny budget covering local gang crimes until he became a victim himself, shot to death in his Nuevo Casas Grandes' studio in October 2009. He was but one of 26 murders that month and 200 killings that year in Nuevo Casas Grandes, according to a TV news report that aired shortly after his death on Mexico's Canal de las Estrelles network.

After the violence began, it prompted an exodus of Anglo-Mormons. "We had a sacrament meeting, and there were [only] 10 people" who attended, says Kelly Robinson, "and we were two."

Husband Russell adds, "There was nobody here. It was eerie. What was really insolito [absurd] was the real calm when you walked outside."

A Dublán Anglo neighborhood organized a community-watch group. Neighbors put up fences and talked of blocking off the streets running into the Mormon enclave.

Mormons, both Anglo and Mexican, waited for direction from church headquarters during LDS General Conference. "We were all scared, waiting to see what the prophet would say," Cervantes recalls. A high-ranking church official reassured them that they were safe. "He said in the conference for the Mexicans to stay calm, everything would be fine."

Bury Your Fear
While the 2009 kidnapping of Mitt Romney's cousin, Meredith Romney, a colony resident, made national headlines in the United States, Mexican Mormons abducted by gangs went without much publicity. "If you're white and you're rich, they make a big scandal about it," Ovidia Tarin says. "Hispanics, forget it. They'd get rid of you, your body was a liability."

Aaron Tarin's uncle, Armando Barrera Hernandez, cuts and polishes stones and sells them in the United States. On Sept. 11, 2009, Barrera was getting ready to leave his store in Nuevo Casas Grandes for a rock show in Denver, when four masked men armed with three AK-47s and an M-15 shot down the door.

"Quien es el patron?" one shouted. Barrera raised his hands. The leader hit him in the face several times. Barrera's eyes were taped over, two hoods were pulled over his head, and he was placed in the back of a truck with a gun stuck to his chest, while Cumbia, Mexican folk music, blasted on the radio. They pulled up at a house behind a peach-packing plant, where he was dragged out of the truck and beaten again by the four men. They wanted 1.5 million pesos ($140,000) and negotiated with Barrera's family on his Blackberry, which Barrera, blindfolded, had to explain to them how to use.

The kidnappers were afraid of being discovered. Barrera heard one of them say on the phone to a friend that conditions were "very dangerous" in Nuevo Casas Grandes. His kidnapper told the man on the phone that he should be careful and that he would pray for him. "God will bless you," the kidnapper said to the caller.

Barrera would later learn that the gang who held him killed six other captives. The leader tortured Barrera, at one time discharging a gun so close to Barrera's ear, he remains partially deaf to this day.

click to enlarge 7.jpg

When he heard them say on the third night, "We're going to throw out the rubbish," Barrera thought they were going to murder him. "The kidnappers always said they were going to kill me if they didn't get the money. They were going to return me in pieces."

Just after midnight, they took him in a truck, still blindfolded and hooded, opened the door while still moving, put their feet in the small of his back and pushed. He forward-rolled into a field, yanked off his blindfold, and watched the truck's lights disappear into the darkness. By then, his family had put $25,000 in cash and some gold into a bag and left it under a bridge in Colonia Dublán.

When Barrera got home, he was greeted by crying relatives. In the shower, he knelt down, he says, his voice breaking, and, "I pardoned [my abductors]. I felt free."

His friends in the police told him not to report his ordeal, since some cops were connected with the gangs. "It was very dangerous to speak," Barrera says. But, he adds, you have to move on. "If you live with fear, it is very difficult to live. You have to bury it."

Some credit the federal police and military who blanketed the area with ending the violence that targeted civilians, while numerous colony residents City Weekly interviewed highlighted what they believed was the role cartel kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman played from prison prior to his July 2015 breakout. In 2012 or so, Guzman, they say, had promised to restore order—and, over a 10-day period, bodies appeared in piles on street corners, in plazas, with cardboard signs stating, "This is what happens to criminals."

Colonia Juárez, locals say, largely escaped the violence that impacted Colonia Dublán and Nuevo Casas Grandes. Former Juárez Academy sub-director Michael Romney speculates that graduates who became involved in the drug trade respected their education enough to spare the green valley from brutality.

In the five years since relative calm has returned to the colonies, a renewed sense of freedom has also gradually emerged. You can walk the streets at midnight, sit on a rickety bench at a taco stand in mostly silence, the night punctuated by an occasional passing car. The only signs of the violent past are armed soldiers patrolling a main street in a truck late at night, and the occasional spilling over of blood-letting between gangs into Nuevo Cases Grandes. That happened as recently as late spring 2015, when four youths alleged to be robbers had their hand chopped off and were shot and dumped in a plaza.

Este es el lugar "This is the place"
Armando Barrera says he has made the most of the years since his brutal kidnapping. His favorite pursuit is riding his motorbike in the mountains, alone, just the wind in his face. "For the last seven years, we have lived in paradise again," he says. "We have returned to the Nuevo Casas Grandes of before."

Others take a more nuanced perspective. Whenever Elco Bencomo sees families out for a walk at 10 p.m. along the dusty side streets where he lives, "I know for sure it's ended. But I'm still reluctant, because it happened once, it might happen again."

Cars and trucks with dark windows are still present in his neighborhood, Eduardo, stepfather of Cristina's slain sons, says. "We've had these years of tranquility, it's true, but there's many things we don't know."

Cervantes' words tinge with bitterness as she talks about her family's economic struggles while those wealthy Anglo-Mormon youths she graduated with, 22 years later, continue to enjoy the same life they lived back then—riding motorbikes around town, playing basketball. "Sadly, we Mexicans have to burn our butts off to be able to earn our way. I have two jobs; Elco has three jobs, and we can barely make it."

click to enlarge 8.jpg

While Tarin negotiates his way through the bureaucratic labyrinth to operate a business in Mexico, Cervantes and Bencomo remain committed to raising their children in the community they love, even as the hi-tech world that Tarin seeks to usher in, threatens to only amp-up a cultural Internet invasion that has largely passed these dusty, quiet streets by. "That's all you can do," Bencomo says. "You try to protect them, and if ever there was a place where they can be protected, it is here."

This is the third in a series of articles on technology, the law and society.

Pin It


Latest in Cover Story

© 2024 Salt Lake City Weekly

Website powered by Foundation