One person was in custody Wednesday, but many questions remained unanswered surrounding the massacre that took the lives of nine family members in northern Mexico.
The victims lived in the Mexican enclave of La Mora, about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. Austin Cloes, a relative of the victims who lives in Utah, said they lived quiet lives, enjoying their children and operating a successful pecan farming operation.
Monday’s slaughter was carried out by cartel gunmen who ambushed three SUVs along a dirt road in the remote, mountainous area of Sonora state, authorities said. Three women and six children died in the carnage.
Eight children survived. Five of them were flown by military helicopters to U.S. hospitals. Sonora state health officials said they were in stable condition.
We know what happened – but why?
Leah Staddon, a relative, told The Arizona Republic that the three mothers with dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship were driving from Bavispe to a wedding in LeBaron, a Mormon-offshoot community in the state of Chihuahua, when their three SUVs loaded with children were attacked. One of the vehicles may have been headed for the airport in Phoenix, officials said.
The vehicles were sprayed with gunfire on a road near Rancho La Mora in a remote and mountainous area where the Sinaloa cartel has been engaged in a turf war with another gang. Authorities theorized the attackers worked for a cartel that mistook the family’s SUVs for a rival gang’s convoy.
If it was a mistake, why were there two attacks?
That is an emerging part of the investigation. Mexican army chief of staff Gen. Homero Mendoza said the ambush consisted of two attacks more than an hour apart at two places along the road. He said that at 9:40 a.m., a Chevy Tahoe was hit by bullets and exploded in flames, and at 11 a.m., two Suburbans were hit by gunfire.
How are the suspect and hostages connected to the massacre?
Criminal investigators said a suspect was arrested and under investigation for possible connections with the deaths. In a statement posted on Facebook, the Agency for Criminal Investigation for the state of Sonora said the suspect was found in the town of Agua Prieta, right across from the Arizona border, holding two hostages who were gagged and tied inside a vehicle.
The suspect, whose gender was not specified, had four assault rifles, ammunition and various large vehicles, including a bulletproof SUV, the agency said.
But Mexican Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo said Wednesday that preliminary information indicates the suspect is not linked to the ambush.
Were the Jaguars and La Linea cartels involved?
César Peniche, attorney general of Chihuahua, told Univision that the region where the massacre occurred is operated by a group connected to the Sinaloa cartel called the Jaguars.
The group operates between Chihuahua and Sonora, and their leader is Francisco Arvizu, also known as “The Jaguar,” Peniche told the Spanish language network. There is another rival group called La Linea – or The Line – which is connected to the Juárez cartel and is commanded by Roberto González Montes.
Peniche said these two groups are in constant dispute over the coming and going of drugs in the area, Univision reported.
How dangerous is Sonora?
Sonora is a key location used by the international drug trade and human trafficking networks. It is labeled as “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” by the U.S. State Department.
It’s unknown whether the anti-crime reputation of the victims’ extended family influenced the attack. The victims were related to the LeBaron family, whose members have clashed with drug traffickers over the years. One family member, Benjamin LeBaron, was murdered by the cartels in 2009 after he founded neighborhood patrols against them.
Are the families Mormon?
No, according to the church. “Though it is our understanding that they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our love, prayers and sympathies are with them as they mourn and remember their loved ones,” the church said in a statement. Family members said the victims were members of a fundamentalist Mormon community.
What are these communities doing in Mexico?
The victims killed in Monday’s ambush highlight the long history of fundamentalist members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who originally fled from the USA to Mexico to practice polygamy.
Mormon families from the church’s fundamentalist wing began flocking to Mexico after the church officially banned polygamy in 1890. Most of the families moved back to the USA after the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910 but began to return after the war. The practice of polygamy has mostly been abandoned in the communities in Mexico.
How much help will the U.S. provide Mexico in combating cartels?
President Donald Trump blamed “two vicious drug cartels” for the attack. He said he was ready to “wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.” He said he would await a call for assistance from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The Mexican president said taking on the cartels was an internal security matter.
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He kept the door open for some limited cooperation between his government and U.S. officials to help investigate Monday’s ambush.
Contributing: David Jackson, USA TODAY; Rafael Carranza, Daniel González and Bree Burkitt, Arizona Republic; The Associated Press. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.