MEXICO CITY – Nine members of a family with dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship –three mothers and their young children – were killed in a shooting attack that relatives suspect might have been a case of mistaken identity by Mexican drug cartel gunmen.
The victims were members of La Mora, a decades-old settlement in Sonora state founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona.
The mothers were driving from Bavispe to a wedding in LaBaron, a community in the state of Chihuahua, when their three vehicles loaded with children were hit by gunfire. One of the vehicles exploded in flames.
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 in a watershed moment in Mexico’s drug war.
The attack happened Monday near Rancho La Mora on the border between Sonora and Chihuahua in a remote, mountainous area where the Sinaloa cartel has been engaged in a turf war with another gang. The ambush scene stretched for miles.
Leah Staddon, who lives in Arizona, said her nephew’s wife and her four children died in the blaze.
Staddon originally thought 10 relatives had been killed. Mexican authorities said Tuesday that nine people died and four children were injured in the attack, but Mexico’s Public Safety Secretary said six children were injured and another one might be missing.
Eight children were found alive after escaping from the vehicles and hiding in the brush; several had bullet wounds or other injuries.
Staddon said her brother discovered the smoldering, bullet-ridden vehicle.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “It’s incomprehensible, the evil. I don’t understand how someone could do that.”
Another relative, Julián LeBaron, identified one of the victims on his Facebook page as Rhonita María LeBaron.
Staddon gave her name as Rhonita Miller, 33. She said Miller’s four children who died inside the car were ages 8, 10 and 4-month-old twins, a boy and a girl.
Staddon said she learned later Monday that her sister-in law and her cousin had been killed.
She was trying to verify from relatives in Mexico exactly how many people died. She said they told her that after gunmen killed her sister-in-law and two children, they opened the door and saw more children and let them go.
Staddon 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.
She identified her sister-in-law as Dawna Langford, who was traveling in a second vehicle with nine children.
Staddon identified her cousin as Christina Johnson. Johnson was traveling in a third vehicle with her baby, Staddon said. Johnson’s baby was found alive inside the vehicle, Staddon said.
Staddon said the travelers belonged to a fundamentalist Mormon ranching community that has lived in Bavispe for more than 40 years.
The LDS Church posted a statement on its website: “We are heartbroken to hear of the tragedy that has touched these families in Mexico. 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 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 launched an air and land operation in the area where the incident occurred, according to a written statement provided to The Arizona Republic.
President Donald Trump tweeted about the attack Tuesday morning, offering the Mexican president U.S. help “to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
Lupita Orduno, a spokeswoman for the Sonora Attorney General’s Office, said authorities planned to release more details about the attack 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.
Suspected drug cartel ambush:13 officers killed, 9 wounded in Mexican police convoy
More news in Mexico:Mob ties mayor to back of truck, drags him through town
“As a mother I feel anger, repudiation and deep pain for what cowards did in the mountains between Sonora and Chihuahua,” she wrote. “I don’t know what kind of monsters dare to hurt women and children. As Governor, I will do everything to make sure this does not go unpunished and those responsible pay.”
It’s not the first time that members of the breakaway church have been attacked in northern Mexico, where their forebears settled – often in Chihuahua state – decades ago.
In 2009, Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who was related to those killed in Monday’s attack, was murdered in 2009 in neighboring Chihuahua state.