At least nine members of a Mormon family that has in the past spoken up against Mexican drug cartels were killed on Monday when their vehicles were ambushed by gunmen in a violent region of northern Mexico, family members said.
The victims included six children and their mothers. One of the vehicles caught fire, burning the bodies of one mother and her four children beyond recognition.
Eight children survived the attack, although six of them were injured, one of them critically, according to David Langford, a relative of the victims. Family members said that one of the surviving children was shot in the back. One of the women was shot in the chest at point-blank range, said Julian LeBarón, a cousin of some of the victims.
Approximate site of killings
Some of the children hid by the roadside to escape, Mr. LeBarón said. Family members said that the surviving children included a 7-month-old infant and a child about 12 years old who hiked for miles to seek help.
Initial accounts of the violence came from the family of the victims. As Mexican officials tried to determine how it unfolded, details of the attack remained murky on Tuesday.
Here’s what we know so far.
Who were the victims?
The nine victims were members of the LeBarón family, a group of dual Mexican and American citizens who have lived in a fundamentalist Mormon community in the border region since the 1940s.
Much of the LeBarón family now lives in North Dakota, where they work in the oil fields and run businesses, but they frequently travel to the border area for holidays, vacations and other special events, said Kenny LeBarón, a cousin of the three slain women.
David Langford, the brother of one of the victims, said the three women who died were his sister Christina Langford; Dawna Langford and Rhonita LeBarón.
The family is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the mainstream church with 16 million adherents that is headquartered in Utah. When the LeBaróns first arrived in Mexico, they practiced polygamy, but that has now largely faded from the community, the family says. The Church of Latter-day Saints prohibits the practice. It has also abandoned the name Mormon, while the LeBaróns continue to use it.
How did the attack start?
The family was traveling in three separate vehicles from La Mora, in the state of Sonora, to Colonia LeBarón, in the state of Chihuahua, when they were set upon by gunmen.
One of the victims, Rhonita LeBarón, was headed to Phoenix to pick up her husband, who works in North Dakota and was returning to celebrate the couple’s anniversary. Her car broke down, Julian LeBarón said, and the gunmen “opened fire on Rhonita and torched her car.”
She was killed, along with her four children, he said: an 11-year-old boy, a 9-year-old girl and twins who were less than a year old.
About eight miles ahead, the two other cars were also attacked, and the two other women were killed, he said. A 4-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl were also killed, he said.
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Are there any suspects?
No suspects have been named, but Alfonso Durazo, Mexico’s security minister, said Tuesday that “there were serious advances in the investigation.” The family suspects that the gunmen were members of an organized crime group. The Sinaloa Cartel, which was once led by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, is active in the area; so are other groups trying to take control.
Was it a targeted attack?
The massacre came a decade after two members of the LeBarón family who confronted local drug cartels were kidnapped and murdered. But things had been peaceful in recent years and there seemed to be a sort of truce, said Ruth Wariner, Rhonita LeBarón’s aunt.
It’s unclear whether the attackers intentionally targeted the family on Tuesday or whether it was a case of mistaken identity.
Julian LeBarón said the family had not received any threats, other than general warnings not to travel to Chihuahua, where they typically went to buy groceries and fuel.
Ms. Wariner said she suspected that drug traffickers had mistaken the women’s caravan of sport utility vehicles as being from a rival trafficking group. Mr. Durazo offered the same theory on Tuesday.
How have Mexico and the U.S. reacted?
Mexico deployed its newly formed National Guard and its military to the region.
President Trump offered to help Mexico eradicate its drug cartels. “This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth,” he said on Twitter. “We merely await a call from your great new president!”
He added, “The cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!”
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said that it was up to Mexico to deal with the matter. “We appreciate and thank very much President Trump and any foreign government that wants to help, but in these cases we have to act with independence, according to our Constitution and our tradition of independence and sovereignty,” he said.
Large Mexican criminal groups have launched a string of violent attacks in recent weeks. Fourteen police officers were killed in an ambush last month in the state of Michoacán and, days later, cartel gunmen laid siege to the city of Culiacán, in Sinaloa State, forcing the government to release one of El Chapo’s sons, whom it had just arrested.