Dozens of people traveled to a secluded, mountainous area of Sonora in northern Mexico to attend the funerals of nine Americans shot dead by cartel gunmen on Nov. 4.
Escorted by Mexico’s National Guard, the train of SUVs lit the meandering road on the night of Nov. 6, heading for the municipality of Bavispe, where the services will be held the next day for some of the three women and six children slain.
“We came prepared to sleep on the floor, in tents. Whatever is needed to support the families who died in this terrorist act,” said Alex LeBaron, a former congressman and cousin of one of the women, Rhonita Miller.
The remains of Miller and her children, who died when their car was shot at and burst into flames, are due to be buried in another village called Colonia LeBaron on Nov. 8.
Alex LeBaron, who was with the convoy, told Mexican radio that mourners had come from the United States and across Mexico, bringing food and mattresses for the journey.
The LeBaron family, who came to Mexico in the early 20th century, now claims to be more than 5,000-strong.
Authorities and relatives say the killings appeared to be the work of the Juarez and the Sinaloa cartels, who fight for control of lucrative drug routes that run through sparsely populated areas into the United States.
The victims came from prominent local families, including the LeBarons, Millers, and Langfords.
Nestled in the fertile valleys of the Sierra Madre mountains just a few hours’ drive south from the U.S. border, the oldest communities formed in the late 1800s to continue polygamy in their Mormon church as the practice was outlawed in the United States.
The colony has had run-ins with the cartels for years, facing murder, kidnappings, and other crimes.
The situation became so serious that the Mormons eventually broke Mexican laws and armed themselves for defense, Vice reported in 2012.
It’s not clear why the cartels ambushed the caravan of three vehicles carrying women and children on Nov. 4. A video posted on social media showed the charred and smoking remains of a vehicle riddled with bullet holes that was apparently carrying the victims when the attack happened.
Crossfire or Assassination?
Mexican army Gen. Homero Mendoza said at a Nov. 6 press conference that a criminal group called La Linea is believed to be responsible for the attack as it sent a group of gunmen to the area to prevent incursion from a rival crime group, Los Salazar, aligned with the Sinaloa cartel.
However, David Langford, whose wife, Dawna Ray Langford, died in the ambush, said he believed the killers went after the families intentionally.
“This was a targeted attack and the cartel knew there were women and children in those vehicles,” he told ABC News on Nov. 6. “The cartel waged violence against our community using our families as pawns.”
Five of Langford’s seven children survived the attack and were transferred to a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, for treatment, he said. Two were in critical condition on Nov. 6.
Julian LeBaron, a relative who lives in Chihuahua state, also said he believed the attack was intentional.
“There was no crossfire,” he said. “They intentionally aimed and fired on women and children.”
A suspect in the slayings was arrested after being found on Nov. 5 in the town of Agua Prieta, near the border with Arizona, holding two hostages who were gagged and tied inside a vehicle, the Agency for Criminal Investigation for the state of Sonora wrote in a Facebook post.
Trump Offers Help
In response to the attack, President Donald Trump offered to help Mexico “wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
“If Mexico needs or requests help in cleaning out these monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively,” Trump wrote in a Nov. 5 tweet.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he’d look into “the possibility of getting help,” though he also said he didn’t think “we need the intervention of a foreign government to deal with these cases.”
Mexico has faced an escalating murder epidemic in recent years. The government has recorded more than 250,000 homicides in the past dozen years, including more than 30,000 in the first seven months of 2019, most of them related to the drug war. That excludes an unknown number of disappearances.
Reuters contributed to this report.