Nine members of an American family with Mexican roots – three mothers and their children – were brutally killed in an attack by gunmen in Mexico.
Security Minister Alfonso Durazo confirmed the assault in a tweet Tuesday.
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 in a remote, mountainous area where the Sinaloa cartel has been engaged in a turf war with another gang.
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 about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. Authorities said eight children were found alive after escaping from the vehicles and hiding in the brush, but several had bullet wounds or other injuries.
Leah Staddon, a relative who grew up in the same Mormon community before moving to Arizona, said Monday that she was still trying to get more information about the attack.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “It’s incomprehensible, the evil. 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 community in the state of Chihuahua, when their three vehicles 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.
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.
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.
Suspected drug cartel ambush:13 officers killed, 9 wounded in Mexican police convoy
Who was the family killed in Mexico?
Staddon said she was still trying to verify late Monday from relatives in Mexico exactly how many people had been killed.
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.
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.
Drug cartel feud:19 bodies found hanging from a bridge or hacked up in Mexico
Why are Mormons living in Mexico?
The three families who fell victim to the attack belonged to a Mormon ranching community that has lived in the Bavispe for more than 40 years.
La Mora is a decades-old settlement in Sonora state founded as part of an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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.
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.”
Lupita Orduño, a spokeswoman for the Sonora Attorney General’s Office, said authorities planned to release more details about the attack on Tuesday.
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; Associated Press. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.