A year ago, three Mormon women and six of their children were massacred on a lonely road in Mexico’s Sonora desert. What has happened to the families left behind, and their search for justice?
“We came here to get away from it all. And nobody’s ever bothered us.”
Kenny Miller speaks in a thick southern American drawl. In a camo trucker hat and thick work boots, he trudges up a dirt path slick with damp clay. On one side are rolling desert hills, thick with mesquite shrubs. On the other, the Sierra Madre mountains push up dark grey clouds.
Kenny is a Mexican Mormon, born and brought up in La Mora, a five-hour drive from the US border. La Mora is more a ranch than a village, with a school, a workshop, cattle sheds and about 30 family homes. A rural idyll.
But as he approaches a black tarpaulin held down with rocks, his expression changes. Twisted metal chunks spill out from the sides.
It is haunting evidence of the tragedy that struck this community. “It’s just turned our world upside down, and I don’t think it will ever be the same again.”
On 4 November 2019, Kenny’s daughter-in-law Rhonita Miller – known to her family as Nita – and two other women, Christina Langford and Dawna Ray Langford, set out in convoy on a six-hour drive. They were heading to Colonia LeBaron, another Mormon settlement, and home to many friends and family.
Rhonita and Dawna were going to a wedding, while Christina was visiting her in-laws ahead of a move back to the US. She and her six children were to be reunited with husband Tyler who worked in the oil industry in North Dakota.
The previous night, at a farewell party for Christina, the women had discussed the road to LeBaron. The journey was a familiar but lonely one. The open dirt road climbs through a narrow mountain pass, before dipping into the plains of Chihuahua.
“We talked about how stupid we were as women travelling these roads alone with our kids,” Christina’s mother Amelia told the BBC.
But she says Christina had laughed it off and said she wasn’t afraid.
She left five of her six children with Amelia and strapped her baby, Faith, who she was still breastfeeding, into the car seat of her Chevrolet Suburban SUV. Altogether, there were 14 children with the three women.
Rhonita’s sister, Adrianna, was on an anniversary trip in Canada with her husband when she first knew something was wrong. A message on a family WhatsApp group simply said: “Please, family. Pray this isn’t really happening.”
The next message, sent to her husband, read: “Nita’s Suburban is on fire and all filled with bullets.”
“But they’re not in there right?” Adrianna recalls asking her husband.
“Nobody would do that to babies, to a woman and four children. Maybe they just kidnapped them and lit it on fire?”
The answer came in a phone call 45 minutes later.
“He turned around to me and said: “They’re all gone. They’re all burned.”