A Childhood in Northern Mexico: Looking Back In The Wake of the LeBaron Tragedy

3 children posing near the summit of Pajarito mountain, Chihuahua.
3 children posing near the summit of Pajarito mountain, Chihuahua.
Me and my younger brothers exploring the summit of El Pajarito, 1979.

My family’s odyssey in Northern Mexico almost ended as soon as it started — parked on a dark highway, surrounded by men with machine guns.

Last week, I watched as news broke about the cartel attack on relatives of the LeBarons, a fundamentalist Mormon family traveling through the Mexican state of Sonora, feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. Years ago, that could have been my family.

For just over two years, I lived in a Mormon colony almost like theirs. I traveled on roads similar to the ones they traveled on. And while the cartels had nothing like the reach and firepower that they do today, there was still risk on those roads between the U.S. and the farming settlements that families like the LeBarons have cultivated for generations.

In the late 1970s, my mother and stepfather picked up and moved us to Northern Mexico. Their reasons weren’t entirely clear, but my eight-year-old mind pieced it together as best it could. My stepdad, Peter, couldn’t find a job. America was in its first great recession, the Carter era of rampant inflation where prices rose faster than pay rates. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. They were living off of their savings and Peter was doing odd jobs, mostly landscaping, to bring in some kind of cash.

When he got wind of a job teaching at a private school in a Mormon colony in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, my stepdad jumped at the chance.

That’s what started our odyssey among the Mormons of Northern Mexico. One that almost ended as soon as it started — with our RV parked on the side of a two-lane highway in Chihuahua in the middle of the night, surrounded by men with machine guns.

Let me backtrack a bit.

Nowadays, I doubt that many U.S. citizens would think, “Hey, I should escape all the problems of modern civilization by moving to Mexico!” In the ’70s and early ’80s, though, the idea caught some people’s imaginations — including my stepfather’s. Escaping to a less developed part of the world was part of the American zeitgeist of the time. The final scene in the 1984 movie The Terminator, when Sarah Connor escapes into Mexico to hide in the mountains and wait for nuclear war and the rise of the machines, illustrates that thought pretty well. Everything seemed to be falling apart, and war with the USSR seemed almost certain. And there, just to the south of us, was Mexico, which Americans thought of — if they thought about it at all — as a poverty-stricken neighbor filled with stereotypical serape-wearing peasants tucked under big sombreros. The dollar was strong against the peso, so living there would be cheap, and the locals would be grateful for our cash.

Peter had gotten a lead about the teaching job in Mexico while visiting some of his Mennonite cousins in the mountains north of Chihuahua City. The enthusiastic young Mormon who told him about it said the job was all but his — he just needed to be living in the area — and that he knew of a rental home available right away.

To my stepdad, especially after touring the prosperous Mennonite farms of Cuauhtémoc and the Mormon ranches north of the mountains, Mexico seemed like the answer to all of his problems. Peter flew home and told us to start packing.

This isn’t an expose of the LeBaron family or some of its extended members’ mysterious, sordid past dealings. Plenty of news outlets are trying to do a good job of that, though the family affected has nothing to do with its more notorious relatives. It’s a memory from an almost-nine-year-old me, frayed and a little faded, of our family’s odd adventure in the realest part of Mexico, historic land of the Apache and Tarahumara, arid and mountainous enough to hide bandits and desperadoes and revolutionaries and drug cartels, but most of all, a land of everyday people going on with their lives, all amid the heartbreakingly stark high desert landscape that featured in the background of the video coming out of Sonora last week.

Exploring the foothills of the Eastern Sierras with a school friend, around 1981.

Northern Mexico has always had a pretty large element of lawlessness compared to most of the U.S. Most Americans don’t really understand how it all fits, who knows who, or what slights and vendettas drive the gunfights that erupt periodically across the region. Few know how different it is to travel there compared to the States.

That willful ignorance is why my family found itself surrounded by men with guns in the middle of the night in early January 1979.

We had crossed into Mexico a few hours before, five kids and a dog packed into the back of our hardy little Toyota Chinook. My stepdad drove, mom navigated from the passenger seat. As the sun set, we rolled slowly through Ciudad Juarez, the border city that in so many ways is an extension of and polar opposite of its sister city El Paso. Juarez was lively back then, before the cartels, a place for Americans to shop cheaply and spend the evening in its restaurants and bars. There was still enough violent crime that my mother ordered the curtains shut in the back of the RV so that no one could see in. My brothers and I took turns peering out between the curtains, watching the storefronts glide past in the darkness.

Then we were out of Juarez and past the suburbs, and then we were beyond the streetlights, driving into pitch-black darkness. We drifted to sleep as the Toyota’s engine hummed along.

We were jerked awake when the RV swerved suddenly.

A big, all-steel Pontiac was swerving back and forth in front of our RV. I could see men in the back seat, looking back at us, their pupils glowing as they reflected our headlights. I could hear another car’s engine roaring next to our vehicle.

“Geezus,” my oldest brother said, peering out of the curtain, “Those guys have guns!”

“Get down! Stay where you are,” my mother said to us, sharply. “Don’t say a word.”

Blocked in by cars, with a steep berm on either side of the road and no clue what lay beyond, Peter had no choice but to slow down and stop. Men burst out of the cars — two more were right behind us — brandishing revolvers, military-style rifles and short-barreled machine guns.

My mother and stepdad were deathly silent in the front seats. Men surrounded our RV, guns leveled. Peter and Mom rolled down their windows and I watched as a gun barrel jutted inside, barely an inch from my mother’s head. For several very long seconds, it seemed like everyone outside was yelling, very loudly, very rapidly.

Suddenly everything went quiet. I distinctly heard shoes crunching on the gravelly dirt that lined the side of the highway, and a man in tan slacks and a brown blazer leaned over to look in my mother’s side of the car. “Would you mind, very much, if you would raise your hands over your head? Very slowly, please?” the man said in clear English.

These weren’t drug smugglers or highwaymen. They were federales, agents of Mexico’s federal government, dressed in plainclothes and driving unmarked cars. My stepdad had driven right past a mandatory checkpoint about an hour outside of the border city of Ciudad Juarez — one of several interdiction points set up to discourage smugglers of the drugs du jour, marijuana and cocaine. Tired and confused, and with a tenuous grasp of Spanish, Peter had missed the signs leading up to the checkpoint, steered the Chinook around a line of cars pulled off near a small, white-plastered, dimly lit building and continued down the dark highway, unaware that within a few minutes a fleet of unmarked cars was tearing after us.

A few minutes of very polite conversation with the English-speaking plainclothes officer ensued, and then we shifted from being in the most dangerous place around to one of the safest spots in Chihuahua. We all got to hop out and stretch our legs in front of the headlights while the police searched our RV, and after a stern warning we were sent on our way with instructions to not stop for anyone else until we got to our destination.

Unlike us, the LeBaron family were not at all ignorant of the risks they faced traveling back and forth to their ranch lands in Sonora, just across the state line from Chihuahua and due west of the two largest and oldest Mormon colonies in Mexico, Colonia Juarez and Colonia Dublán. They were traveling in a multivehicle convoy that should have guaranteed support and protection from the dangers of the highway. Each car likely had spare water, food and gasoline tucked in the cargo area so that they wouldn’t have to stop at unfamiliar gas stations along their route. They would have had predetermined rally points in case the convoy cars got separated, as happens sometimes.

These were practices we learned to follow, too, during our time in Chihuahua.

Our Toyota Chinook, a mini RV that we probably pushed far beyond its factory-set limits, parked at our rental house in Mexico.

We arrived in Colonia Dublán on that same bitterly cold January morning, piling out of the Chinook onto the gravel driveway of the rental house that Peter’s new acquaintance had given him the address of. We were shivering in coats that were too thin for the climate — not because we were desperately poor but because we were Floridians, with no idea what cold weather really was. The sun was not yet up, and the pale light of a winter dawn was just barely enough to see by. Frost lay on everything: the brown grass of the yard, the neatly trimmed shrubbery that lined the driveway.

To my eye, nothing had changed between leaving Florida’s 1970s suburbs and arriving here, other than the weather. We had simply traveled from one land of neatly laid out mid-century homes to another. I didn’t realize at the time that this world existed only within about a six-block by ten-block grid. I didn’t know that the next street over boasted hundred-year-old Victorian-era homes, or that the graded dirt roads were lined with maple trees drawing their water from the irrigation ditches that lined every street in the colony.

We’d find out later that morning that my stepdad’s new “friend” hadn’t told anyone, really, that we were coming. Not the local Mormon church, not the owner of the rental house we were parked at, and not the school that was supposedly hiring. We had driven nearly 2,000 miles, had piled all of our furniture and possessions into a U-Haul — now sitting in a lot back in El Paso — had braved a solo drive at night down Highway 2, all on the verbal promise of a job that, in the end, didn’t exist.

We stuck it out, though. We had to — Peter had rented out our house in Florida and staked the remainder of his savings on this move.

I look back on our time in the Mormon colonies today with the fondness bred by decades of absence. As a child, Mexico was in some ways a wonderful place to grow up. Communities tended to be close-knit — not just the Mormon and Mennonite groups, who guarded their privacy, but the people of Nuevo Casas Grandes, the small city next to Dublán, whose history is closely intertwined with that of the original American colonists.

When we weren’t attending classes at Mañuel Dublán — the private school Peter thought had a job for him — my mom and stepdad took us to see as much of the countryside as possible, relying on advice from neighbors on what areas were safe to visit and which to avoid. There were day trips to the ancient mud city of Paquimé, hikes on the nearby mountain El Pajarito, camping trips on Mormon-owned land high up in the Sierras. There were festivals in the town’s park, Saturday trips to the local cinema, American-style birthday parties at an American-style pizza place, Dinos.

My brothers explore Paquimé, Casas Grandes. We probably wouldn’t be allowed to climb over the ruins today.

But we were also keenly aware that life outside this enclave wasn’t as idyllic. It wasn’t hard for me to overhear conversations between adults about people they knew being robbed or injured on the two-lane highway that stretched between towns, devoid of rest stops or shopping centers. A few days before our arrival a local family had rolled their station wagon off the highway berm at high speed, their unbelted kids scattering across the desert landscape, leaving one dead and others severely injured. Our first community event was the funeral.

My mother keeps photos of our sojourn in Mexico tucked away in a few albums and shoe boxes at the bottom of her office closet. They’re grainy and faded, taken with my stepdad’s rangefinder or mom’s Instamatic. Most of them are from family trips to sights near Nuevo Casas Grandes or in the high desert south of Colonia Juarez. We’re smiling in most of them, posing with sun-bleached bones of long-dead cattle or giant stands of prickly pear cacti. Unlike our trips to national parks in the U.S., we all kept a watchful eye out for strangers approaching, for the unknown descending on us.

The cartels barely existed back then, but Mexico had its dangers. It has always had them.

Our family’s adventure in Mexico didn’t end because we felt we were in danger. My stepfather simply gave up trying to find a living there and found a job in El Paso, something that would bring in steady money until we could move all the way back to Florida. After two years of my parents odd-jobbing around the colonies, we had something like a stable life again. But I think often about our time in Mexico, and the people we left behind.

Cattle branding on Mormon ranch land in Chihuahua, winter 1979.

There are plenty of good reasons that the LeBaron family chose to stay on their ranch land despite the dangers of the cartels. Rebecca Janzen’s summary of their history in Sonora and with the cartels is one of the most accurate you’ll find online right now. Further, it’s a beautiful country, not yet ruined by the corporate development that has turned U.S. cities into generic copies of each other. You won’t see McDonald’s and Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants stamped on the landscape every ten miles. It’s a place where neighbors still take care of each other, and where kids can stretch out and run outside.

But it’s also a region where violence can lash out and end that idyll. Sometimes it’s predictable; sometimes it’s not. I’ve been gone from Mexico so long that I couldn’t begin to decipher what the cartel’s reasons were for attacking a vehicle filled with women and children. I only know that the possibility for violence has always been present in the region, existing side by side with the quiet communities of Mexicans, of Mormons, and of Mennonites that have tried to get along there for more than a century.

Writer, editor, would-be novelist. Stunningly mediocre martial artist. Friend of technology. Avid traveler.

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