LA MORA, Mexico Row after row of pomegranate tree branches hang low with ripe red fruit, bursting open with the sweet tangy seeds inside. They line essentially every home in La Mora, a small community of about30 houses nestled among cloud-covered desert mountains in eastern Sonora.
The idyllic conditions are what drew these fundamentalists from the United States to this town in Mexiconearly 50 years ago.A river thatflows year-round through thedesert valley feeds the rich soil, and the communityworks together to grow pomegranatesand pecan trees.
November is harvest season, and this year's harvest was about to get under waywhen the idyll was shattered.Gunmen attacked three vehicles on a mountain road, leaving three mothers and six children dead.
In this place some 70 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, the shootings played out against a backdrop of ongoingdrug-smuggling and rising cartel violence region-wide.
And the families at La Mora who hold both U.S. and Mexican citizenshipfound themselves grappling with a question.
To stay or leave?
Theircontradicting feelingswereevident during the first two funeral services held in La Mora this week.
The tragedy brought together friends and families from all over the United States and northern Mexico, to the place many of them were born or spent significant amounts of time in at some point duringtheir lives.
The first funeral service on Thursday honoredDawna Langford, 43, and two of her children Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2.During the service, her husband David Langford described how the ambush had already changed his community and only heightened his sense of insecurity.
This community here will forever, ever be changed, said David Langford, Dawnas husband, during her funeral. One of the biggest things to our lives is the safety of our family, and I dont feel safe. I havent for a few years here.
The atrocity of this crime, to me, I cant even comprehend it. Its gonna take years for me to even get over this. To me this is no little thing, Langford said. I do not feel safe here, and I wont because the truth is we are not safe here at the community.
But just a few hours later, the same community members who bid farewell to Dawna and her two children, also honored Rhonita Miller, 30, and four of her children: Howard, 12, Krystal, 10, and eight-month-old twins Titus and Tiana.
During their service, her father Adrian LeBaron who lives in Colonia LeBaron, a community with similar origins, but much larger than La Mora seemed almost defiant in explaining their communitys role in northern Mexico, despite the attack that took away his daughter and four grandchildren.
Reporters ask me, 'Why are you so intent on staying here in La Mora, or here in LeBaron?' he said. I tell them that La Mora isnt the best place for those who are from La Mora, and LeBaron isnt the best place for the LeBaron. I say its the only place. We wouldnt know how to live differently.
FOR SUBSCRIBERS: Family killed in Mexico ambush had strong ties to Mesa
It's unclear how many of the 30 or so families living in La Mora will leave. Already several of the houses at the ranch stand empty, as more and more familieschoose the safety of the United States.
Families living in La Mora and even more that traveled therefor the funeral services said the decision to stay or leave isan ongoing discussion among themselves.Almost everyone acknowledged there willbe somepeople leaving for good because of the shootings.
Some family members who don't live herebut visit from time to time said this trip may be their last time in La Mora.
"I don't think I will ever come back unless something drastically changes, and it's really sad because we have lots of family down here that we love and they're amazing people, wonderful people," said Emily Langford, who's related to all three women killed in the ambush.
Others like Kendra Miller, Rhonita's sister in law, said they will remain in La Mora for the time being. She's been living herefor the past year.
Miller was supposed to be getting married this weekendand had planned on moving to Utah with her husband after the wedding but it has been postponed.
"It breaks my heart to think that everyone feels like they wouldn't come back," she said. "Not everyone feels that way;a lot of people feelthat way."
Though she will eventually leave the community with her husband, she said she's now looking to spend as much time as she canin La Mora.
She fears what might happen to dozens of other people in the townwho have worked at La Mora for many years locals who come from outside the fundamentalist groups. In many cases, theseworkersare considered family, Miller said.
"For me, I look at it and I think, 'I can't leave these people,'" she said."We can leave easily because we're dual citizens. But whatabout all these people?They can't just pick up and leave. And so I personally feel that I want todo everything I can to lend my voice to lend my support my action into making this once again a safe place."
But security around La Mora could remain a concern for some time. The administration of Mexican President Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador has come under pressureto shift to a more aggressive strategy to fight cartel violence in the country.The shootings outside La Mora remain under investigation, but are suspected to be related to cartels.
Javier Osorio, a political science professor and expert on cartel violence at the University of Arizona, said recent flare-upsalong this part of Sonora stand out because the state had suffered lower levels of violence than neighboring border states.
He attributed that to the "monopolistic presence of the Sinaloa Cartel," he said.
But he attributed the changing dynamics over the past year to three things.
Oneis "internal conflict" among rival cells of the Sinaloa Cartel having to do with the capture and extradition of kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, which likely undermined leadership at the organization, Osorio said.
A series of gunfights in Agua Prieta in June left 15 people dead, including one U.S. citizen. Reports signaled a breakaway cell was fighting for control of the area but was defeated.
Second, Osorio said,there have beenincursions from La Linea, the armed wing of the Juarez Cartel in Chihuahua, into eastern Sonora. That's also likely because of El Chapo's capture, which signaled a weakness that the Juarez Cartel has tried to exploit, he said.
That possible explanation aligns with theMexican government's version of what happened this week near La Mora. Lpez Obrador's administration has suggested gunmen from La Linea enteredterritory controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel and shot at the three women and six children, mistaking them to be rival cartel members.
A third possible explanationisthe increasing value of the Sonora-Arizona corridor for drug smuggling, especially with stronger, more potent drugs like fentanyl. Seizures of the drug at ports of entryhave risen all along the U.S.-Mexico border, but the largest seizures have been at Sonora's shared border with Arizona.
Unless there are drastic changes, Osorio said, he expects the violence to continue or escalate.
Yet despite the threats of continuing violencein the areas surrounding La Mora and eastern Sonora, there are residents who also said they have no intention to leave their homes any time soon.
Steven Langford, the former mayor for the communities around La Mora from 2015 to 2018, is among them. He said he'll be staying put, but he expects several families will leave and may not come back at all.
"We thought these things couldhave never happened to us," he said. "Then it happened in a massive scale."
Have any news tips or story ideas about the U.S.-Mexico border? Reach the reporter at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.