11/22/19 (written by T McGinnis) – On November 4, 2019, nine members of a local Mormon family were killed in a cartel-related ambush in northeastern Sonora. Among the deceased, officials found and identified the bodies of three women and their six children, all belonging to the LeBarón family.
Ambushed en Route
According to El Universal and The Wall Street Journal, at 10:00am on the morning of November 4, the mothers and 14 of their children left their homes in the small village of La Mora in three separate vehicles. Two of the vehicles were traveling to the neighboring state of Chihuahua , while the third was headed to Phoenix, Arizona, all to visit family. Witness accounts from affected family members who survived say that around 10:20am, one of the SUVs was discovered engulfed in flames. Three armed men were seen fleeing the scene.
About 40 minutes later, closer to 11:00am, the other two SUVs were attacked ten miles further down the road. One of the vehicles contained Christina Marie Langford and her seven-month-old baby. The other was driven Dawna Ray Langford and her seven children. Dawna’s 13-year-old son, Devin, survived the ambush along with several of his other siblings. After fleeing the attack and hiding in bushes along the roadside, the surviving children then walked 14 miles back into La Mora to alert authorities.
Suspects Behind the Massacre
The attacks were the result of a clash between rival gangs in the surrounding area. General Homero Mendoza Ruiz, the Chief of Staff for Mexico’s National Defense, said that two criminal groups had previously engaged in a shootout along the U.S.-Mexico border in the town of Agua Prieta. They were identified as Los Salazar, based in the state of Sonora, and La Línea, based in the neighboring state of Chihuahua. The New York Times thenreported that in an effort to create barriers of entry for Los Salazar, La Línea had dispatched gunman to the region that straddles Sonora and Chihuahua, which is where the attacks took place.
The motive behind the massacre has been debated. One theory is that it was a case of mistaken identity. General Mendoza noted that the suburban model of the SUV driven by two of the three mothers is commonly used by criminal gangs, which could have led to confusion about who was inside the vehicles. Additionally, investigators cited that because the children in one of the vehicles were allegedly able to flee, this suggests that the attack was not specifically directed toward the families.
Another theory, however, speculated that the LeBarón family was somehow more intimately entangled and actively engaged in the rivalry. Even some family members themselves said that what transpired on November 4 was most likely a targeted, intentional operation by criminal groups. According to Milenio, Julián LeBarón, the cousin of a victim, stated that although the community remains bewildered by the guiding motivations of the involved groups, there is no doubt that “they [were] intentionally murdered.”
Still, accounts differ with regard to the relationship between the Mormon community and local cartels. Some investigators suggested that the motive behind the attack may be linked to the community’s “cordial” relationship with Los Salazar criminal group, which controls most of the activity in that region. Los Salazar are thought to be aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – a stringent enemy of La Línea. Some speculate that the ambush served as a message to the Sinaloa factions that La Línea, and more broadly the Juárez Cartel, control the road and therefore the drug trafficking routes that lead into the state of Chihuahua.
Mormon History in Northern Mexico
Although various news stories have portrayed the massacre as a violent attack against visiting U.S. citizens, the community of over 5,000 Mormons living in northern Mexico dates back to the early 20th century and consists of many dual nationals. According to El Universal, the LeBarón family initially made the move into Mexico to practice polygamy, a convention that since then, has largely faded out among members.
While some press accounts have focused on this aspect—including conspiracy theories attempting to link the victims’ families to the human trafficking ring known as NXIVM—others have focused on the family’s activism in advocating for the rights of crime victims and local disputes over land tenure and water. A decade earlier, two members of the LeBarón family were kidnapped and murdered following their confrontation of the drug gangs that control the borderlands south of Arizona. That incident spurred family members to organize locally and nationally to pressure the government to act to improve citizen security and victim protections.
Though authorities are still working to identify possible suspects and uncovering the real motivations for the massacre, the implications for the U.S.-Mexico relationship remain much more evident. Since the attack occurred approximately 70 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border and against dual U.S.-Mexico citizens, U.S. politicians have become increasingly vocal regarding the security policy of Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador. According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. President Donald Trump offered help in combating cartel violence. “This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth…the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!” he tweeted. Given the historical legacy of U.S. interventionism in Mexico and apprehensions about armed U.S. agents operating in Mexico, President López Obrador swiftly declined the offer.
Jorge Chabat, an analyst at the University of Guadalajara, stated that this incident will likely “raise the temperature among conservative sectors in the U.S. precisely during election season.” Other political actors, such as U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), have asserted that Mexico remains dangerously close to assuming the classification of a failed state, especially given the violence seen in Culiacán and Veracruz. “Mexico’s president hasn’t taken the threat seriously and innocent lives have been lost again.” He urged Mexico to heed President Trump’s advice and join U.S. military forces to launch a “full-scale offensive against these butchers.”
Trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico Border
Ironically, sources point out the underlying complicity of the U.S. in the recent violence targeting La Mora’s Mormon community. The New York Times reports that at a news conference two days after the attacks, Mexican government officials offered additional details regarding the incident. According to investigators, “the ammunition used in the attack were .223 caliber cartridges manufactured in the United States by Remington” and usually associated with AR-15 and M16 rifles. Each year, approximately 200,000 American guns illegally cross the border into Mexico, many of which land in the hands of the criminal organizations that fight to control the multibillion drug trade to the United States.
Since taking office, President Obrador has issued public statements signaling that his time in office would constitute the end of entrenched political corruption and Mexico’s “War on Drugs.” With Obrador’s strategy of “hugs, not bullets,” he discusses a prioritized focus on alleviating the poverty that drives individuals to join gangs and fall prey to cartel influence. However, record homicide rates in 2019 alone have caused many to call this strategy into question. To intensify an already escalated situation, the incident on November 4 happened only two weeks after the Sinaloa Cartel laid siege to the city of Culiacán following the military’s arrest of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán. For many, the subsequent release of Guzmán and retreat of military forces signaled a weak government security strategy. María Elena Morera, director of civil society organization Causa in Común, told The Wall Street Journal that, “Mr. López Obrador’s strategy is clearly not working. He can’t keep thinking that a government using legitimate force against criminals is what generates violence.”
Mexico’s Secretary of Security and Civilian Protection Alfonso Durazo initially reported that a suspect had been brought into custody, but information later gathered indicated he was not involved. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, at the alleged request of the Mexican government, later agreed to join the investigation into the massacre. With internal and external pressures equally intensifying, it remains to be seen whether President López Obrador’s security strategy will evolve in the face of increased scrutiny and international political pressure.
Ahmed, Azam. “After Mormon Family’s Terror in Mexico, a Message Emerges: No One Is Safe.” The New York Times. November 7, 2019.
Diaz, Lizbeth. “The LeBarón Case: Drug Cartels & the Fight to Control Drug Trafficking Routes.” El Universal. November 7, 2019.
Semple, Kirk. “Mormon Massacre in Mexico May Be Tied to Gang War, Officials Say.” The New York Times. November 8, 2019.
Ahmed, Azman. “9 Members of Mormon Family in Mexico Are Killed in Ambush.” The New York Times. November 8 2019.
Allyn, Bobby. “FBI Joins Investigation Into Killing Of 9 Members Of Mormon Family In Mexico.” NPR. November 11, 2019.
Kryt, Jeremy. “A New Twist in the Horrific Massacre of American Moms and Kids in Mexico.” The Daily Beast. November 11, 2019.