More on the Murders of Elders Ball and Wilson (and Hidalgo and Ugarte and Zapata)

A reader made this comment on an earlier post, and I thought it was important enough to post it in its entirety here. Thank you, Ryan, for a thoughtful and informative response. I don’t presume to assign blame, especially not to President Wright. In hindsight, it certainly seems as if more could have been done to protect the missionaries, but decisions are never made with the benefit of hindsight. I should note that, given my perspective on the church, I don’t see God’s hand in these deaths, either way. Anyway, here’s Ryan’s excellent response:

I’m Ryan Reeder; I wrote the paper you cited in your blog entry while I was a student at BYU in April 2001. Greg Anderson, who just commented, and whom I met shortly afterward, alerted me to this discussion.

Part of the reason I became interested in this topic was because of the influence it had on my mission in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Bolivia from early 1995 to early 1997. Early in my mission, all of the American missionaries were greenies; the Bolivians and other South Americans in the area had been running things for the entire duration of their missions. Thus, as Americans began being called to leadership positions, and quickly even being called to a majority of those positions, some of us sensed some resentment toward us from some of these older natives, a sentiment which we did not feel from those Latin missionaries who had been arriving contemporaneously with the North American missionaries.

One thing I observed in researching this topic was that in Utah, the assassinations of Elders Ball and Wilson (twenty years ago yesterday, by the way) was covered pretty heavily in the media. I compiled a number of the articles and sources I used in writing this paper here: There were a number of Church News, Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune articles. Then the August 22, 1990 murders of Manuel Antonio Hidalgo and Cristian Andreani Ugarte in Peru were covered in maybe two or three articles and the March 6, 1991 murder of Oscar Zapata was barely mentioned.

However, the response seemed to be quite different. As has been mentioned, following the Ball and Wilson assassinations, most North American missionaries stayed in Bolivia. A few were reassigned, a state department official (an LDS church member) came to instruct them on some points of safety precautions, and American missionaries were assigned to be with native companions, for the most part. But drastic action didn’t seem to occur until after the Peruvian murders. While I’ve heard rumors about President Wright’s sexuality, I don’t know how big of a factor that was in the decision to pull North American missionaries for a time. I don’t believe any of that was known at the time; Elder Ballard told a story in his next General Conference address in October about a dream which President Wright had related to him regarding the work which Elders Ball and Wilson were continuing to do on the other side of the veil.

At any rate, following the Peruvian murders, North American missionaries were pulled from both countries for about three or four years. These assassinations, by the way, as I discovered in my research, were not the result of anti-Mormon sentiment in the region per se, as was the motivation in the Joseph Standing murder in Georgia in 1879 and the Cane Creek massacre in Tennessee in 1884. As David Knowlton pointed out in a Sunstone article, the problem partly stemmed from a different mindset and culture in Bolivia about the roles of church and state. In the US, the two are seen as separate; the LDS Church is not the United States of America any more than the US is McDonald’s or Disneyland. Its headquarters are based in the country, but that’s all.

Because of the long Spanish influence in Bolivia, a different conception of the roles of church and state have grown up in Bolivia. There, religion is perceived as an arm of the state. Consequently, these American missionaries were seen not just as representatives of the LDS Church, but also as representatives of the United States of America. This idea extended to include those indigenous missionaries who wore the badge and had adopted the name of the Church. For cultural–and terrorist–reasons, the distinction was erased.

Additionally, the politics of the time, particularly the war on drugs during the Reagan and especially the elder Bush years, led to quite a lot of unrest and anti-American sentiment among certain segments of society. The coca plant, from which cocaine is derived, is native to the area, is widespread, and has many traditional uses. Coca farming also provides an income for a number of impoverished Bolivians. Surely the rank-and-file Bolivians didn’t have strong enough feelings to warrant violence and terrorist acts, and most missionaries were never in any danger. However, it doesn’t take many people to create enormous tragedy in the lives of a few people and gain attention.

I’m not really cognizant of how the decision was made to send North Americans back into the region, or how quickly it was done or what the process was like in the La Paz and Peruvian missions. I do know what it was like in the Cochabamba mission. The first American missionaries called to that mission entered the MTC in July 1994 and Bolivia in September 1994. Between September 1994 and September 1995, a total of 55 Americans arrived, including two sisters with the third group. I was in the seventh. Then fourteen sisters, most of whom had welfare assignments, arrived between October 1995 and March 1996. During these six months, only four American elders arrived, one of whom actually came from the Guatemala MTC (along with the only native Central American missionary I knew). As sisters’ term of service was six months less than that of the elders, this could be conceived of as the first generation of returning American missionaries to the region.

During the next several months, there were only a trickle of new North American missionaries. A total of five arrived over the next five months. Perhaps interesting to some, despite Capt Jack’s earlier assertion that “I’d believe you that this was the church’s philosophy if they’d subsequently sent grandchildren of General Authorities to the ‘hot spots’ in Peru and Bolivia. Trouble is they didn’t; in fact, they pulled out all the North American missionaries and left the Latin Americans in place, even though more of them had been murdered than had North Americans,” at this time, in mid-1996, two of those five missionaries were, in fact, sons of General Authorities. Then, with the last groups that I saw arrive beginning in September 1996, new groups of missionaries arrived with what I imagine are fairly standard proportions of elders and sisters.

I don’t know all the details of the current political situation, but I understand that about a year or so ago (probably about the time this blog entry was originally written), North American missionaries were again pulled out of Bolivia. This, as I understand, was due to precautions surrounding some anti-American blips on the radar screen with the leftist Hugo Chavez (Venezuela)-aligning administration of Evo Morales. Recently, the Church News reported that Sisters Beck and Lant, general presidents of the Relief Society and Primary, respectively, visited Bolivia and Peru, meeting with the first ladies of the countries while there ( A personal conversation I had three days ago with an individual whose brother was affected by this more recent pullout, indicated that after having spent a year in Peru, he was now preparing to return to Bolivia. I would surmise that these actions took place with a clear remembrance of and in an attempt to avoid the situations which led to the tragic events of 1989-1991.

Just another quick point or two; Elder Eastland’s name has been brought up on this and/or an earlier post–he was actually serving as an AP (Assistant to the President) at the time of his death (an AP is one of only two missionaries given leadership assignments over all of the missionaries in the entire mission), (which was why he was in a car with the President’s son, incidentally). The causes of his death, while tragic, had nothing to do with the deaths of Elders Ball and Wilson. It was just an accident. The effects it had, occurring shortly after the assassinations, probably did have some significant emotional and psychological impact on many of the missionaries, and possibly particularly the mental state of President Wright.

Could these murders have been prevented? Was it a mistake? My personal feeling is that if the situation were to repeat itself, in an environment where LDS meetinghouses were being bombed and other potential threats against the safety of the missionaries, with anti-American rhetoric in an area where the Church is perceived as representing the US, the Church would quickly remove North American missionaries from the area. But I don’t blame anyone for what happened then (other than the FALZW and other terrorist perpetrators, of course). I believe that those involved acted according to the best of their knowledge with the information they then had available. When Mormon handcart pioneers decided to leave late in the season of 1856, and were caught unprepared in the snows of Wyoming, they and their rescuers experienced terrible hardships and many died as a result of exposure, including some of my ancestors. But, as Francis Webster is quoted as saying, “Cold historic facts mean nothing here for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that Company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that Company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that Company ever apostatized or left the church because every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.”

I think the same could be said about the 1989-91 murders. Were mistakes made? Maybe. However, the Lord works in many ways to the salvation of his children. He has a plan, He knows what’s going on, and He is in control. I suspect that His purposes have, are, and will accomplish significantly more than a handful of lukewarm conversions. As President Hinckley indicated at Elder Wilson’s funeral, their names “will be engraved forever in the history of this church as those who lived as faithful servants of God and died as martyrs to his eternal work.”

Ryan Reeder

4 Responses to More on the Murders of Elders Ball and Wilson (and Hidalgo and Ugarte and Zapata)

  1. Odell says:

    Dear Mr. Reeder:

    Although I thank you for your comments, I do not see how they contribute signficantly to the topic. The LDS church ignored anti-American sentiment and left young men at risk. Murders occured which should have been avoidable. People dying one hundred years earlier because church leaders ignored the obvious does seem releveant to me.

  2. […] the topic of Missions, Runtu has a guest post by Ryan Reeder explaining the context and effects of missionary murders in Bolivia. And Simian had a good Mission […]

  3. Bull says:

    I’m not sure what to think. I think I’ve commented before on how the missionaries in Bolivia were often left on their own and most were pretty clueless about the potential dangers they face. One of the more eye opening experiences I had in late 1984 was when the non-member son of a member who was also an activist in the communist party at the university in Cochabamba informed us about an upcoming protest march and that we should tell the missionaries to make themselves scarce because some of the radicals had machine guns and wouldn’t mind taking out some americans.

    I can assure you that I communicated this immediately to the mission office. I don’t recall what, if any, action was taken. I know I communicated the info to my zone.

    The reality is that Bolivia was a very dangerous place to serve a mission. I don’t think I’m the only Bolivian missionary to take a particular pride in having served well and survived the experience. But if the church is going to take the gospel to the 4 corners of the world then it is going to mean putting young, vulnerable missionaries in harm’s way. If you believe in the mission of the church then that is a risk that seems worthwhile. It’s only as an apostate that I consider it a horrible, misguided tragedy.

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