Nine members of a family with dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship – three mothers and their children – were brutally killed by gunmen in Mexico.
Although authorities in Mexico have yet to confirm many details about the gunmen, relatives suspect the attack may have been a case of mistaken identity by drug cartels. The killing barrage took place Monday in a remote, mountainous area where the Sinaloa cartel has been engaged in a turf war with another gang.
Mexican Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo said the gunmen may have mistaken the group’s large SUVs for those of rival gangs.
All of the victims were apparently related to the extended LeBaron family in Chihuahua, whose members have run afoul of the drug traffickers over the years. Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who founded neighborhood patrols against cartels, was killed in 2009 by gunmen in a watershed moment in Mexico’s drug war.
The victims were all U.S. citizens and members of La Mora, a settlement of less than 1,000 people about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. The hamlet was founded decades ago by a fundamentalist offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many La Mora residents call themselves Mormons but are not affiliated with the church.
Authorities said eight children from the party of 17 were found alive after escaping from the vehicles and hiding in the brush, but at least four had bullet wounds or other injuries.
Mexican authorities said a man found with two rifles and magazines was arrested as part of the investigation.
Leah Staddon, a relative who grew up in the La Mora community before moving to Arizona, called the attack “devastating.”
“It’s incomprehensible, the evil,” Staddon said. “I don’t understand how someone could do that.”
Here’s what we know about the family, the victims and their community:
Staddon told The Arizona Republic that three mothers with dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship were driving from Bavispe to a wedding in LeBaron, another Mormon-offshoot community in the state of Chihuahua, when their three SUV’s loaded with children were attacked. One of the vehicles exploded in flames.
The attack happened near Rancho La Mora on the border between Sonora and Chihuahua, the Mexican newspaper El Diario, reported.
Around an ambush scene that stretched for miles, investigators found over 200 shell casings, mostly from assault rifles.
Staddon said her brother discovered the bullet-ridden vehicle smoldering.
The Security Committee of Sonora confirmed late Monday that authorities in Sonora and Chihuahua were investigating an attack involving a burned vehicle and the kidnapping of several people.
Authorities said they rescued two people who had been kidnapped and gagged inside a white pickup truck.
The investigation involved municipal and state police, the state attorney general’s office, the army and the National Guard, which had launched an air and land operation in the area, according to a written statement provided to The Arizona Republic.
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Who was the family killed in Mexico?
According to Staddon, three mothers and six children died in the attack. She identified the mothers as Rhonita Miller, Dawna Langford and Christina Johnson. Another surviving relative, Julián LeBaron, identified Miller on Facebook as Rhonita María LeBaron, which Staddon said was her maiden name.
Staddon said 33-year-old Miller, her nephew’s wife, and her four children died in the blaze. The children were ages 8 and 10 and 4-month-old twins, a boy and a girl.
Langford, Staddon’s sister-in-law, and her two children died in the attack. She was traveling in the second vehicle with nine children.
Staddon said relatives in Mexico told her that after the gunmen killed her sister-in-law and two children, they opened the door and saw more children and let them go.
She said her sister-in-law’s oldest son, a teenager, hid the smaller children behind a tree, then walked back to the family’s ranch for help.
Johnson, Staddon’s cousin, was traveling in a third vehicle with her baby. Her baby was found alive inside the vehicle.
The Security Committee has yet to verify any of the deaths.
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Why are Mormons living in Mexico?
The three families who fell victim to the attack belonged to a remote ranching community that has lived in Bavispe for more than 40 years.
Some are descendants of former members of the Mormon Church who fled the U.S. to escape the church’s 19th century ban on polygamy. Many identify as Mormon but also regard themselves as independent from the church.
Sonora is considered a key location by the international drug trade and human trafficking network and is labeled as a “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” by the U.S. State Department because of crime.
However, cities in northern Sonora, such as Bavispe, experience lower levels of crime compared to cities closer to Sinaloa.
What have political leaders said?
In a tweet Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump offered U.S. military support to Mexico “to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador turned down the offer, saying that approach has been tried before “and it didn’t work.”
The governor of Sonora, Claudia Pavlovich Arellano, said on Twitter, that as a mother she felt “deep pain” for the victims and vowed that the “cowards” would not go unpunished.
Contributing: Daniel González, The Arizona Republic; Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY; The Associated Press. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.