Polygamists from Texas unwelcome in Mexico Mormon community

Dallas Morning News/May 8, 2008

Colonia LeBaron, Mexico - Nestled in the foothills of Chihuahua's Sierra Tarahumara, a community of breakaway Mormons is worried that polygamists from the sect in Eldorado, Texas, will seek refuge here - much as the founders did when they fled Utah beginning in the 1890s.

The community has worked hard for generations to gain acceptance here.

Though polygamy is outlawed in Mexico - just as in the U.S. - about 15 percent of the community still maintains polygamous relationships, with men getting around the law by taking on what they term "spiritual wives."

Even so, their message to those wanting to seek legal refuge in Mexico is clear: Don't even think about moving here.

"The last thing we need here are a bunch of outlaws," said Lillian Tucker, 40, a mother of 18 who practices polygamy, but is against forcing minors into marriage. "I don't recommend anyone that's committing a crime or that's using religion to become a pedophile to come down here, because they're not going to be welcome."

On April 3, Texas child welfare authorities raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a polygamist compound outside Eldorado, removing children because they believed underage girls were being forced into marriages and sex with older men. More than half of the 14- to 17-year-old girls - 31 of 53 - swept into state custody already have children or are pregnant, officials said. Officials now have custody of 464 children and also are investigating possible sexual abuse of boys.

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have denied there was any abuse. And civil liberties groups have raised concerns about the sweeping nature of the removals.

Here in Chihuahua, sympathy runs high for the Texas families split from their children. But most understand that something had to be done to protect minors.

"I'm very concerned about what's happening to so many children," said Clary Jones, 52 and a former mayor of Galeana, the municipality that includes Colonia LeBaron.

Added Ms. Tucker: "They should go straight to the ones you feel are being abused and take care of them instead of traumatizing 400 and something children in the process."

Some four hours southwest of El Paso, Texas, Colonia LeBaron is named after a polygamist who fled his native Utah in 1924 with his two wives and eight children. Alma Dayer LeBaron initially settled in Colonia Juárez, the first breakaway Mormon colony established in 1890, about 30 minutes from here.

But after polygamy was discontinued there, he moved his family to Galeana and founded what is known today as Colonia LeBaron, laying the groundwork for the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, an offshoot of the Mormon Church.

Ludicrous idea

For this community, the Eldorado case is once again testing their resolve to keep away those who may want to seek refuge - including some of whom may have relatives here.

Willie Jessop, a de facto spokesman in Eldorado for that group, said the idea that members of his sect would move to Mexico is ludicrous.

They want to stay near their children - most of whom are in foster care, Mr. Jessop said. And they may be disenchanted with the U.S. government, but they don't feel they'd have greater protection south of the border.

"I would never send any wife or child of mine down there," he said.

Still, residents in LeBaron said they've seen this story play out before.

"My hope is that we stop that kind of stuff *," said Brent Verlan LeBaron, a descendant of the founder, "but it's happened before."

Some polygamists from a colony in Colorado City, Ariz., headed south after a 2002 raid there - to the Mexican states of Sonora or Chihuahua, both bordering the U.S.

Fundamentalist leader Orson William Black, another self-proclaimed prophet, fled for LeBaron.

When he arrived with three wives and an underage bride-to-be, residents kicked him out of town, locals said. Mr. Black is now believed to be hiding somewhere along this isolated mountainous region.

"We don't want trouble," Mr. Jones said. "We're living our own way of life here and it's within the law and we're all trying to be productive citizens of Mexico* And trying to do the best we can. When somebody comes in like this, it makes it real difficult for everyone."

Residents in this valley of apple orchards, pecan trees and alfalfa fields work as farmers and lead a quiet life devoted to their large families - the majority of whom are related to one another.

They blend in with Mexican residents, speak two languages and embrace both cultures.

Religion is no longer organized, though they gather weekly for bible study and read the Book of Mormon, they say.

Dwindling numbers

Polygamy in Colonia LeBaron today is only practiced by "consenting adults," said Mr. Jones, who is widely respected as a community leader and bridge builder. He served as Galeana's first "American mayor," a reference to his blonde hair and blue eyes, from 2001 to 2004.

Those who practice polygamy stay within the law by not being legally married to more than one person and their numbers are dwindling.

The Chihuahua native is married to one of Alma Dayer LeBaron's granddaughters and he does not practice polygamy.

"If we're doing plural marriage at all, we're doing it within the law, within freedom of choice," Mr. Jones said. "And maybe that's why we're living plural marriage less and less because there is not the religious push anymore toward doing that."

Ms. Tucker, for instance, is in a polygamous relationship as a spiritual wife, but none of her four married daughters practices polygamy. And that's fine with her.

Her children range in age from 7 months to 22 years of age. Her husband, whom she declined to name without his approval, has 14 children with her "sister wife." She doesn't share her 7-bedroom home with her sister wife, but they get along just fine and their children consider themselves brothers and sisters, she said.

Mexicans tolerate their lifestyle, she said, even admire that "we're not hypocritical."

"We share a husband. We love big families," she said "But polygamy is not something I recommend to anyone unless you share the same fundamental religious beliefs because otherwise it could turn into a mess."

As she presides over the organized chaos that is her home, Ms. Tucker turns her attention to the Eldorado situation and shakes her head.

"I'd tell the mothers, 'Wake up and use your common sense. Use your relationship with God, and if doesn't feel right, get the heck out of there,'" she said. "What were they thinking?"

Staff writer Emily Ramshaw and BELO TV U.S.-Mexico Bureau Chief Angela Kocherga contributed to this report.

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