It all happened so suddenly that I didn’t have time to react. It was a loud bang, followed by screams and commotion. Then panic. Mothers yelled for their children and children cried out for their mothers. And there I was in the middle of the chaos: scared, confused and unable to move. What else could a 7-year-old boy do?
It was the first time I had heard a gunshot and, from my standing position in the middle of the dance floor, I could see the revolver, too.
Did the cowboy-looking man holding the gun mean to shoot it? I never found out. My parents had located me, and we were already heading for the exit. The party was over. I still remember the shattered tiles on the floor where the bullet hit. Also shattered forever was my sense of security, even though no one was injured.
Growing up in northwest Mexico, where the Sonoran Desert meets the Sierra Madre, guns were never too far away. It’s a vast and scarcely populated land of cattle ranches and copper mines, just south of Arizona and New Mexico, where enforcing the law has historically never been a priority for Mexico’s central government. Mexico City was just so far away, both geographically and ideologically. Local guns remained mostly out of view, but everybody knew they were there.
We only occasionally saw the large communities of Mennonite and Mormon sects that had established communities in Chihuahua and Sonora states. Mennonites, in particular, were known for periodically visiting the surrounding towns, but only to sell some of their products, especially cheese. They mostly kept to themselves — authorities (and criminals) barely noticed their existence.
This week’s massacre of three Mormon women and six children at the Sonora-Chihuahua border hits home. Not only because that’s the region where I grew up, but also because, in spite of the presence of guns, I never saw this level of violence and horror.
When I was a kid in that area, few people felt a need to lock their doors. Local police were not much more than glorified traffic cops, but that was all we needed. Fatal car crashes in Sonora’s and Chihuahua’s winding and treacherous roads were common, but murders were rare.
I would later learn that it was a false sense of security; that populations in northwest Mexico were living a lie. Lack of violence didn’t mean lack of crime — just the absence of conflict. Decades later, I refocused my attention on northwest Mexico as a journalist, and learned that the entire region had all along been controlled by what American law enforcement calls “TOCS”: transnational criminal organizations.
As the demand for drugs in the United States grew, so did the power of the criminal organizations. Over time, multi-ton shipments of drugs began moving north. Cash and ever-more-powerful guns traveled south. The change at first was so slow that few people noticed. And then, in December 2006, shortly after taking office, Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war against drug cartels, declaring before the military in Mexico City that it was “a battle that we need to fight.” “All Mexicans united will prevail over criminality,” he said.
Many Mexicans saw the announcement in a positive light. Finally, the government would take responsibility for security in the whole country, many said. Nobody expected criminal organizations would react the way they did: As one after another drug lord was hunted down, their lieutenants would fight amongst themselves for power within the cartels. That fragmentation gave rise to more violence and, increasingly, the cartels started branching out into other crimes like extortion, fuel theft and kidnapping.
In 2009, 16-year-old Eric LeBaron, a member of a Mormon community in the region called “Colonia Lebaron”, was kidnapped. He was returned unharmed a week later, but the family was shaken. His older brother Benjamin became a vocal anti-crime activist, gaining national fame. Two months later, the 32-year-old Benjamin and his brother-in-law Luis Widmar Stubbs, 29, were beaten and shot to death after armed men stormed their home in Chihuahua.
Covering Mexico over the years, I had noticed the gradual spiraling down of security. It started with shootouts, then a wave of murdered women in Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city bordering El Paso, Texas. Then Mexico watched in horror as human remains and beheaded bodies began to appear in public places, hanging from bridges and overpasses, even tossed on a dance floor in Michoacán.
I traveled back to Chihuahua in 2012 to find the Mexican relatives of then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In the rolling hills of northwest Chihuahua, about 180 miles (289 kilometers) south of the US border, we found several Romneys whose family has called Mexico home since 1885. Kelly Romney, Mitt Romney’s second cousin, showed me their peaceful and orderly community surrounded by apple and peach orchards.
The community seemed a world away from the relatively close Ciudad Juarez, where homicides had averaged 8.5 per day just two years earlier. Romney spoke to me in Spanish, with a typical northern Mexican accent. Then he switched into American English with a slight Texas twang — the same accent I heard this week when I spoke with Dinorah Liddiard.
A former resident of Colonia Lebaron, one of the Mormon communities in Chihuahua, Liddiard is the aunt of all five children who died, sister-in-law to Dawna Langford and also relative of Rhonita Miller, another victim. “To me the most difficult thing is seeing how things that happened to my family before are happening again,” Liddiard said, remembering the 2009 murders. “I’m sad and I feel powerless. This is very painful.”
But it was the words of another bereaved family member of the family seemed to echo from the past. “We have never been involved and we have tried to avoid, ‘living by the sword, die by the sword,'” Kenneth Miller told CNN regarding Monday’s attack.
“We have never been involved in the trade, the drug trade, this that and all. We have tried to avoid it and live a private, quiet life,” he said.
I’ve heard the same words so many times. Not from people I have interviewed as a journalist, but close friends and members of my own family, who feel it’s becoming impossible in this part of Mexico to “live a private, quiet life.”