At least 9 people – three mothers and their young children – from a prominent Mormon family were brutally killed during an attack by gunfire in Mexico.
Security Minister Alfonso Durazo confirmed the attack in a graphic he tweeted Tuesday. The graphic also says that one person remains missing.
Although authorities in Mexico have yet to confirm many details about the gunmen, relatives suspect that the attack may have been a case of mistaken identity by drug cartels.
The victims were all U.S. citizens and members of La Mora, which is a settlement located about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona.
Leah Staddon, a relative who grew up in the same Mormon community before moving to Arizona, said on 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 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 by gunfire, causing one of the vehicles to explode in the 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 that occurred earlier in the day 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 where the incident occurred, according to a written statement provided to The Arizona Republic.
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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 were killed 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 during 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 young teenager, hid the smaller children behind a tree, then walked back to the family’s ranch for help. Some of the children were wounded, Staddon said.
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 that 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.