At least nine people—including six children—who lived in a religious community of U.S. citizens in northern Mexico were killed Monday in what could be a case of mistaken identity after drug trafficking rivals got into a shootout with cartel gunmen, according to family.
More than a dozen other members of La Mora — a decades-old settlement in Sonora state founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — were missing after the attack on a convoy of three SUVs carrying community members, a relative who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told The Associated Press.
Lafe Langford Jr., another relative, shared a video on Facebook that showed a burned-out, bullet-ridden SUV where the bodies of a woman—identified as Rhonita Maria LeBaron—and her four children– twin 6-month-olds and two others aged 8 and 10—were reportedly found outside the town of Bavispe, where the settlement is located. The LeBarons were American citizens, according to the New York Times.
Relatives claim that cartel members kidnapped surviving church members after the initial shootout.
Langford Jr., who grew up in the settlement but now lives in the U.S., told the Salt Lake Tribune the bodies of the two other mothers in the group—43-year-old Dawna Ray Langford and 31-year-old Christina Marie Langford—were found in a separate location later Monday. A third relative said a 4-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy were also killed, bringing the death toll to at least 9.
Mexico’s federal Department of Security and Citizens’ Protection said security forces were reinforced with National Guard, army and state police troops in the area following “the reports about disappearance and aggression against several people.” The troops were searching for the missing community members, believed to include 11 children or more.
According to Langford Jr.’s Facebook post, one of the older boys in the group managed to escape with six of his siblings from the ongoing shootout and run back to his home at La Mora settlement, which is located about 70 miles south of Douglas, Ariz. He said he left other children who were injured hidden on the side of the road. It was unclear how many children were ultimately rescued as of Monday evening.
Many of the church’s members were born in Mexico and thus have dual U.S. citizenship. The three SUVs left Bavispe and were traveling on the outskirts of Sonora, near the neighboring state of Chihuahua, when they were reportedly attacked.
Claudia Pavlovich Arellano, the governor from Sonora, tweeted in Spanish her determination to find the killers.
“As a mother I feel courage, repudiation and deep pain for what cowards did in the mountains between Sonora and Chihuahua,” she wrote. “I don’t know what kind of monsters dare to hurt women and children. As Governor, I will do everything to make sure this does not go unpunished and those responsible pay.”
The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying, “The safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad is among the Department of State’s top priorities. When a U.S. citizen is missing or passes away overseas, we engage with local officials at multiple levels and provide all appropriate consular assistance,” according to Salt Lake City, Utah’s KSL-TV.
It was unclear if the church members were targeted in the attack or if the attack was a case of mistaken identity.
It would not be the first time that members of the break-away church had been attacked in northern Mexico, where their forebears settled — often in Chihuahua state — decades ago. In 2009, Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who was related to those killed in Monday’s attack, was murdered in 2009 in neighboring Chihuahua state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.