Christina Marie Langford & Rhonita Maria LeBaron among 3 adults and 6 children part of Mormon religious offshoot community members gunned down in Mexico by drug cartel.
Reports have told of at least six children and three women living in a religious community of U.S. citizens in Mexico being shot to death after being targeted by a drug cartel gang in the north of the country as they traveled in a convoy of three automobiles.
Government officials also confirmed six more children wounded and one missing after the group’s convoy which included 17 individuals coming under fire during a daylight ambush believed to have been carried out by gunmen affiliated with the cartels.
Relatives said the victims hailed from the La Mora religious community in northern Mexico, a decades-old ‘Mormon’ settlement in Sonora state founded as part of an offshoot of Utah‘s The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They said the group was attacked while traveling in a convoy of three SUVs.
Government officials said the gunmen may have mistaken the SUV convoy for rival gangs. While others now wonder if the group had been deliberately targeted?
The victims were all reportedly dual Mexican and U.S. citizens and were traveling back to the U.S. when they were ambushed, KUTV reports.
Among those killed were Rhonita Maria LeBaron (also being reported as María Rohnita Miller) and her four children, including twin 6-month-old babies and two others, ages 8 and 10. Her burned-out bullet-ridden SUV was reportedly found outside the town of Bavispe, where the settlement is located. Relative Lage Langford Jr. shared a video on Facebook that showed Rhonita’s SUV following the attack.
Utah Mormon religious community members attacked:
Relatives claim that cartel members kidnapped surviving church members.
Langford Jr., who grew up in the settlement but now lives in the U.S., told the Salt Lake Tribune the bodies of the two other mothers in the group – 43-year-old Dawna Ray Langford and 31-year-old Christina Marie Langford – were found in a separate location later Monday. A third relative said a 4-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy were also killed, bringing the death toll to at least nine.
Told Langford Jr. via Fox News: ‘It’s just huge. It’s just absolutely unimaginable. This is the absolute worst nightmare for our entire existence in Mexico…and we never thought it was possible.’
Jhon LeBaron, another relative, posted on his Facebook page that his aunt and another woman were dead. He also posted that six of his aunt’s children had been left abandoned but alive on a roadside.
Crossfire attack or targeted attack?
While the deaths could have been a case of mistaken identity, recent history also raises the possibility the LeBaron family was the intended target: only a decade ago, two members of the family opposed to local drug trafficking groups were kidnapped and murdered, according to the NY Times.
Mexico’s federal Department of Security and Citizens’ Protection said security forces were reinforced with National Guard, army and state police troops in the area following ‘the reports about disappearance and aggression against several people.’ The troops were searching for the missing community members, believed to include 11 children or more.
According to Langford Jr.’s Facebook post, one of the older boys in the group managed to escape with six of his siblings from the ongoing shootout and run back to his home at La Mora settlement, which is located about 70 miles south of Douglas, Ariz. He said he left other children who were injured hidden on the side of the road. It was unclear how many children were ultimately rescued as of Monday evening.
Many of the church’s members were born in Mexico and thus have dual U.S. citizenship. The three SUVs left Bavispe and were traveling on the outskirts of Sonora, near the neighboring state of Chihuahua, when they were reportedly attacked.
Hunt for killers:
Claudia Pavlovich Arellano, the governor from Sonora, tweeted in Spanish her determination to find the killers.
‘As a mother I feel courage, 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.’
The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying, ‘The safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad is among the Department of State’s top priorities. When a U.S. citizen is missing or passes away overseas, we engage with local officials at multiple levels and provide all appropriate consular assistance.’
No arrests have been made.