Mention to Utahns familiar with the security issues that have, until recently, plagued two small, Mormon-dominated communities in northern Mexico, that you plan to visit the area and the reaction is usually the same.
"Take a bodyguard," says one.
Another tells me she knew of students who had been kidnapped and were never found.
A third simply says, "I wouldn't go and I'm from there."
That fear of violence in Chihuahua, a Mexican state that borders New Mexico and Texas, dominates the perception of many in Utah of the Mormon colonies, Colonia Dublán and Colonia Juárez profiled in the Sept. 3 cover story, Kingdom Come.
They are all that remains of Brigham Young's great experiment to export plural families across the border in the 1890s, to hide from the U.S. marshals.
But the reputation that the two colonies have for being blood-drenched is far from reality—at least to this reporter who spent a week there getting to know a little about its history and the challenges it has faced.
Rather, it's a place that seems to deserve the "surrealist" tag that a reporter I talked to gave his country with an almost indifferent bitterness.
The two colonies enjoy a rivalry of sorts, extending even to nicknames. Those from Colonia Juárez are called Juárezites, those from Dublán, Dublánites. When the LDS Church announced it was building a temple on an unspecified hill, the Dublánites wanted to build a hill so their colony would be chosen. Instead the picturesque green valley of Colonia Juárez received the honor.
Intriguingly, the house directly opposite from where the temple was built, on the same hill, was home to a family who, in the 1980s, were significant players in the drug trade. But violence within the gang ultimately tore the family apart and, residents say, led them to abandon the property. It since has new owners. Whether it's the hot chocolate on the menu at a little cafe in front of the Juárez Academy, the sign bearing the English street name of "Snow," or the ward house with the adjacent tennis courts, Colonia Juárez highlights its Utah roots.
In Dublán, it's the gorgeous, sprinkler-maintained lawns in front of massive, expensive homes that jump out at you, while two streets away you'll find very simple homes and stray dogs, which are sadly often targeted by bored motorists, wandering the sidewalks.
Seeing a group of young men with fierce blue eyes in dungarees load beer into a pick-up truck from a store only added to the sense of dislocation a first-time visitor from Utah might feel. They weren't LDS Church members, nor were they members of a nearby polygamist colony. Rather, they were residents of a Mennonite community 15 minutes away.
Everyone knows who the local drug kingpin is because residents say he lives in one of a series of expensive properties that he owns along one of the most exclusive streets in Colonia Dublán.
I heard many stories from residents trying to explain the horrors they lived through during the era of cartel violence, but none quite stayed with me more than a strange, unverifiable tale about how neighbors of a small house in a large field called the police about strange noises emanating from the property night after night.
When police arrived, they reportedly found a one-room house with a locked door. They broke the door down to find a lion roaming the room, the walls covered in blood, a few pieces of human remains testament to the horrific fate individuals had suffered there.