LA MORA, Mexico — In the days since her 18-year-old son breathlessly reported that something terrible had happened to her four grandchildren and daughter-in-law, Loretta Miller has cooked nonstop.

Burritos, posole, eggs, potatoes, chicken.

She has cooked to feed the Mexican federal forces sent here to protect her family, the relatives arriving to attend the funerals and the streams of international journalists who have come to this remote corner of northern Mexico to find out why nine American women and children were ambushed and killed while driving through the mountains here on Monday.

Raising 14 children and 27 grandchildren prepared Miller for this.

“We’re a big family,” she said as a pot of soup simmered on the stove. “We know how to deal with crowds.”

While most houses in this part of Sonora state are made in the Mexican style of adobe or cinder block, Miller’s would not look out of place on a cul-de-sac in a Southern California subdivision. In this land of soccer, even the basketball hoop in the driveway is a giveaway that the tiny hamlet of La Mora is different.

Amid the landscape of cactus and mesquite, the American-style homes and perfectly manicured lawns stand out.

So do the town’s residents: a community of largely blond and blue-eyed families from a fundamentalist Mormon sect who hold both American and Mexican citizenship.

Their navy U.S. passports separate them from their neighbors, allowing them to work or own businesses in the U.S., while many local Mexicans toil in $8-a-day factory jobs in the low-slung maquilas that hug the border.

Until this week, the Mormons thought they had another kind of American privilege: protection from narco violence. In the 12 years since Mexico declared war on its drug cartels, sparking an era of record-breaking bloodshed, the cartels have committed horrific acts of violence against Mexicans but have rarely targeted Americans like Miller and her family, aware of the bad publicity and unwanted law enforcement attention it would bring.

That unspoken rule was broken this week when the nine American citizens from the Mormon community were ambushed and killed. So too was another drug war maxim: that women and children are not to be touched.

“Until now, I loved living here,” said Miller, who grew up in a similar Mormon community just over the mountains in Chihuahua state.

She said her family has long had close relationships with the locals, who work in Mormon homes and on their pecan and pomegranate farms. When Miller’s son died last year in a small plane crash, more than 1,000 people showed up to the funeral, she said, and locals hired mariachis to play.

Losing her son had prepped her and the rest of the family to deal with Monday’s loss, she said. “If that hadn’t happened to us we never could have survived this.”

Her son Howard moved down from the U.S. with his wife, Rhonita LeBaron, and their children this year, in part to help out after his brother’s death.

LeBaron was excited about living in Mexico, where life was more relaxed than in the U.S., and where their seven kids could roam.

“She was the perfect mother,” said Miller.

On Monday, LeBaron joined a caravan of women and kids who were leaving town to drive to the border to pick up Howard, who was flying back from North Dakota, where he worked in the oil business. Traveling together, the women thought, would protect them from the dangers of driving desolate roads through drug cartel country.

Shortly after leaving, LeBaron got a flat tire. The caravan returned home and LeBaron asked Miller: “Do you think that’s a sign that I shouldn’t leave here?” But she left anyway, switching vehicles and heading out again in Miller’s 2011 Suburban.

When her son went to check on the broken-down vehicle, he found the burned-out Suburban. Up the road, members of the Mormon community would discover the two other vehicles that had been part of the caravan riddled with bullets and strewn with bodies.

In total, three mothers and six children were killed by assailants that Miller and her family believe were members of a Chihuahua-based drug cartel. The group has been feuding with another cartel that controls La Mora and other parts of Sonora state.

Mexican officials say assailants waged two separate attacks against the three-vehicle caravan.

The first was against LeBaron and her four children, at around 9 a.m. The second occurred about two hours later and about 10 miles up the road and targeted the other two vehicles.

It’s not clear why or when the vehicles separated.

Eight children survived the second attack. Five were airlifted to Arizona to receive medical treatment, and the other three were brought to Miller’s house. She stripped them of their bloody clothes and massaged them until they finally fell asleep.

“They cried for hours and hours until they couldn’t cry anymore,” she said.

Her son Howard arrived in La Mora on Monday, bearing gifts for his three surviving children who were not with their mom in the car that day. The toys have helped distract the kids, but they know what is going on.

Since his life as a family man exploded in a hail of gunfire, Howard Miller hasn’t talked much, except to play with the kids. “I love you, baby,” he tells his daughter Emma, 5, cradling her on his lap. “Come here, big boy,” he says to Tristan, 7. In the den where he cuddles them hangs a sign that says, “Families are forever.”

“The cartels had always respected the family,” Miller says. “But they’ve become more ruthless.”

Mexicans have long known that. Homicides have been at record levels for years here, but most killings go unnoticed by the international media.

While police and journalists swarmed this bucolic farming community, a similar response wasn’t seen when 27 people were burned to death in a strip club in Veracruz in August, or when 14 police officers were ambushed and killed in the span of less than an hour in Michoacan in October.

And as families here began burying their dead Thursday, there was an eerie sense that the ground had shifted and life for the Americans had changed. The services were not just for the families but for a Mexico in which white Americans, and especially women and children, were off limits.

“Our lives will never be the same,” Miller said. “This is the first time I’ve ever thought that I might not spend the rest of my life in Mexico.”

The funerals drew hundreds of friends and relatives from across the United States and Mexico. Those who traveled from the U.S. were met at the border by Mexican soldiers, who escorted them to La Mora.

Willy Jessop, who came from Utah, said some people were afraid to make the trip.

“Everyone had to balance fear and love,” he said. “But I think love won out.”

Members of the Mormon community in Chihuahua state learned several years ago just how ruthless organized crime had become when a teenager was kidnapped and held for ransom and then the young man’s brother was murdered.

In response, members of the community formed their own vigilante police force and spoke openly about smuggling high-powered weapons in from the United States.

“That showed the mafia there that it’s not worth it to mess with us and that it does more harm than good,” Jessop said.

On Thursday, he attended the memorial service for Dawna Ray Langford, 43, and her sons Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2.

Five other Langford children were wounded in the attack. One of them was shot in the jaw. Another was shot in the stomach.

The memorial service was held on a wide green lawn behind a handsome stucco home. The 400 guests sang together and prayed together, and then listened to Dawna Langford’s children as they told stories about their mom.

Langford’s husband, David, sat in the front row with his second wife, Margaret. Though not all members of the community here practice polygamy, the Langfords did.

Bryce Langford, Dawna’s eldest son, recalled his mother’s love of coffee and her love of telling stories that sometimes stretched beyond the truth.

“She was my best friend, the perfect coffee partner and the perfect mother,” he said between tears. He recalled first hearing about the shooting on Monday, and driving frantically from North Dakota, where, like many other men in this community, he works part time in the oil business.

“Every mile that we drove down got more and more painful because the reality was sinking in,” he said.

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©2019 Los Angeles Times

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