Rising Violence Along Baja California-Sonora Border Tied to Larger Organized Crime Disputes

04/08/21 (written by rramos) –

Continuous Increase in Homicides in Mexicali

Recent data from government agencies and civil society appear to indicate a considerable increase in homicides in Mexicali, the capital city of Baja California. On March 25, Juan Manuel Hernández Niebla, president of the Citizen Public Security Council of Baja California (Consejo Ciudadano de Seguridad Pública de Baja California, CCSPBC) told El Heraldo de México that homicides in Mexicali rose 32% in January and February of 2021 compared to the same period last year. Official figures released by the state Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General del Estado, FGE) three days earlier had shown an even larger jump, with reported homicides in the municipality increasing 43% in the first two months of this year compared to the same period in 2020. According to the FGE, a significant portion of homicides in 2021 so far have been concentrated in the Mexicali Valley region, which lies east of Mexicali’s urban core and is composed of various rural communities situated near Baja California’s border with Sonora. 

The steady growth in homicides in Mexicali in the early part of 2021 reveals a worrying trend that appears to have taken hold of the city within the past year. In December 2020, data from the National Citizen Observatory (Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, ONC) showed that Mexicali had suffered a 36% increase in homicides during the first 10 months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. If the growth in murders seen at the beginning of this year continues, the city may experience another year-on-year increase in homicides by the end of 2021.

Photo: Radio Patrulla.

Cross-Border Criminal Activity in San Luis Rio Colorado

The uptick in violence is not confined to Mexicali. Located across the state border in neighboring Sonora, the municipality of San Luis Rio Colorado has also seen a rise in violent crime during the same period in which Mexicali has faced higher murder rates. Local media outlets reported in July 2020 that figures from the National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP) showed a 6% increase in homicides in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. That year, San Luis Rio Colorado had suffered a dramatic spike of nearly 250% in the number of homicides recorded in the city.  

Due to the geographic proximity between the Mexicali Valley (where most of the homicides in Mexicali have been concentrated) and areas of San Luis Rio Colorado that have seen criminal activity, authorities have assessed that incidents of violence seen on both sides of the state border are likely interconnected.

Organized Crime Conflicts Driving the Surge in Violence

The upsurge in violence in both Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado appears to be driven by larger conflicts that have implications beyond the Baja California-Sonora border region. According to Zeta Tijuana, public security agencies in Baja California have determined that the sharp rise in homicides in Mexicali is due largely to two criminal groups, both with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel. One group has been identified as Los Rusos, led by Jesús Alexander “El Ruso” Sánchez Félix and Felipe Eduardo “El Omega” Barajas Lozano. The other group is Los Salazar, a longstanding branch of the Sinaloa Cartel known for its strong criminal influence in Sonora. 

Both Los Rusos and Los Salazar are themselves linked to the larger struggle within the Sinaloa Cartel between the sons of jailed kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, known collectively as Los Chapitos, and their father’s former associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. “El Ruso” and “El Omega” have been identified as members of the faction headed by El Mayo, while Los Salazar are widely reported to be associated with Los Chapitos. Media reports indicate that Los Salazar have been gradually entering Mexicali from San Luis Rio Colorado as part of Los Chapitos’ broader efforts to target Sinaloa Cartel operatives who have remained loyal to El Mayo. This has meant that Los Salazar have been locked in an ongoing clash with “El Omega” and “El Ruso” for control of Mexicali. For his part, “El Ruso” has at times been active in San Luis Rio Colorado as part of a continuous struggle with Los Chapitos. These cross-border incursions by both sides have turned the region between Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado into yet another theater of operations in the larger conflict between Los Chapitos and El Mayo. 

There are recent indications that the fighting that has straddled the border between Baja California and Sonora may intensify further. In early March 2021, government intelligence officials determined that Los Salazar had formed an alliance with Los Garibay, a local criminal group active in the Mexicali Valley. Authorities reportedly expect that this partnership will enable Los Salazar to more effectively compete against the forces of “El Omega” and  “El Ruso.” In particular, Los Garibay, with their familiarity of the local terrain in the Mexicali Valley, may provide assistance to Los Salazar in navigating the area’s numerous rural roads, thereby allowing Los Salazar to move between Sonora and Baja California more easily. With these recent developments, it is likely that high levels of violence will persist along the border between the two states. 


Navarrete Forero, Maria Alejandra. “Narco Funeral Draws Attention to Los Salazar in Mexico.” InSight Crime. August 20, 2019. 

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Villa, Eduardo. “Grupo armado ‘levanta’ a dos personas de un convivio familiar, en Mexicali.” Zeta Tijuana. March 20, 2021. 

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Garibay, Atahualpa. “Baja California tiene uno de los índices delictivos más altos del país.” El Heraldo de México. March 25, 2021. 

Tapia, Mariela. “Incrementaron homicidios en BC, pese a “disminución” de incidencia delictiva: Consejo Ciudadano.” La Voz de la Frontera. March 25, 2021. 

Violence in Western Chihuahua Driven by Heightened Cartel Rivalry

02/22/21 (written by rramos) –A recent string of deadly attacks in various locations throughout western Chihuahua may indicate that organized crime groups linked to two of Mexico’s most prominent drug cartels﹘ the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juárez Cartel﹘ are intensifying their struggle for control of the region’s diverse range of illicit activities.

Photo: Milenio

Streak of Attacks in Chihuahua’s Mountain Towns

On February 1, five men were killed in a shootout in the municipality of Uruachi, located deep in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range and which lies near Chihuahua’s western border with Sonora. Upon arriving at the scene of the attack, investigators from the Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General del Estado, FGE) found a burnt pick-up truck and numerous bullet casings assessed to have come from various types of firearms, including AK-47 rifles. According to La Jornada, FGE officials determined that several armed individuals ambushed the victims as they were traveling on a remote road linking the rural communities of Santísimo de Arriba and Santísimo de Abajo. 

That same day in the neighboring municipality of Urique, situated near Chihuahua’s rugged southwestern boundary with Sinaloa, armed aggressors broke into a house and opened fire against five men inside, killing two of them and injuring the other three. Similar to the Uruachi ambush that also took place on February 1, authorities assessed that high-powered firearms were also used in the attack in Urique.  

These lethal assaults come on the heels of other recent incidents of violence in western Chihuahua, such as the January 28 discovery of a body with gunshot wounds to the back and chest in the town of Arechuyvo, and the kidnapping and subsequent murder of two brothers near the city of Cuauhtémoc on January 30. 

Region of Diverse Criminal Enterprises

Although authorities have not publicly disclosed possible motives behind the recent attacks, the location in which they occurred may point to the involvement of organized crime. Mountainous zones of western Chihuahua have been the site of repeated clashes between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juárez Cartel, which compete for control over the region’s broad array of lucrative criminal enterprises. The area has long been vitally important for drug trafficking, with much of it located within the so-called “Golden Triangle,” a vast territory straddling the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Durango that is known for its widespread cultivation of opium poppy.

Beyond illicit drugs, western Chihuahua is also a hub for illegal logging and timber trafficking. In a press conference last year, the state’s governor, Javier Corral, stated that illegal logging has become an important source of revenue for drug trafficking organizations looking to expand their criminal portfolios. Chihuahua Attorney General César Peniche added that the illicit timber trade is largely concentrated around western towns like Bocoyna, Guachochi, and Madera, where criminal groups have set up clandestine sawmills used to process wood that has been illegally harvested from the region’s abundant forests. 

Furthermore, organized crime groups have begun targeting the state’s large mining industry. Chihuahua is home to several gold, silver, and zinc mines, concentrated primarily in the southwest. According to Emilio García Ruíz, the state’s secretary of public security, groups tied to the Juárez and Sinaloa Cartels have repeatedly “engaged in robbery, theft, and extortion” of mining companies and their workers in places like Urique and Bocoyna. In response, García Ruíz told La Jornada that state and federal security forces have started to escort miners and guard facilities in order to deter against potential assaults from criminals.

Escalating Competition Pushing Up Violent Crime Rates

While competition between the Sinaloa Cartel and Juárez Cartel over the various illicit economies in western Chihuahua is not new, authorities have identified signs that both sides may be ramping up their efforts to confront the other. According to El Heraldo de Chihuahua, intelligence divisions of the FGE have assessed that two high-ranking criminals linked to the Sinaloa Cartel have joined forces in a reinvigorated bid to oust Juárez Cartel affiliates from an extensive 300 square kilometer area ranging from Urique up toward Cuauhtémoc. In response, La Línea, an armed group associated with the Juárez Cartel, is reportedly maintaining an armed presence in territories under its control in the Bocoyna municipality in order to thwart possible Sinaloa Cartel incursions. 

Authorities have cited this escalating conflict as the reason behind a recent “wave” of homicides, kidnappings, and armed attacks in various locations throughout western Chihuahua, such as Uruachi, Basaseachi, Creel, and San Juanito. Reports from the FGE’s State Investigative Agency (Agencia Estatal de Investigación, AEI) that were reviewed by El Heraldo de Chihuahua also indicated that government investigators were weighing the possibility that the February 1 massacre of five men in Uruachi and over 20 cases of kidnappings in Cuauhtémoc since January 1 may be tied to this latest flare-up in Sinaloa Cartel-Juárez Cartel conflict. 

These developments are just the newest indications of heightened tensions between the two cartels in the region. In September 2020, InSight Crime reported that violence in western Chihuahua was largely due to fighting over timber trafficking between the Juárez Cartel, based primarily around San Juanito, and the Sinaloa Cartel, which has a greater presence in areas south of Creel. Just two months prior, the FGE had warned that the Juárez Cartel had launched a “campaign” to wrest control of Guachochi from the Sinaloa Cartel.

The constant criminal disputes in Chihuahua’s western municipalities have contributed to increased levels of violence in the state overall. Data compiled by Causa en Común, a non-governmental organization, showed that Chihuahua’s homicide rate in 2020 stood at roughly 70 homicides per 100,000 habitants, a 5% increase from 2019. Furthermore, Causa en Común also reported a 68% increase in kidnappings compared to 2019. As the illicit economies of western Chihuahua continue to fuel intense competition between rival criminal organizations, the upward trajectory of violence in the state seems unlikely to abate. 


Torres, Juan David. “Así es el Triángulo Dorado de las drogas en México.” El Espectador. January 10, 2016. 

Bonello, Deborah. “Illegal Logging in Chihuahua is Now Mexico Cartel Territory.” InSight Crime. January 10, 2019. 

Mayorga, Patricia. “Enfrentamientos entre los cárteles de Juárez y Sinaloa dejan 19 muertos en Chihuahua.” Proceso. April 4, 2020. 

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Dávila, Patricia. “La disputa por la madera.” Proceso. June 6, 2020. 

López, Daniel. “Tala ilegal es fuente de financiamiento para el crimen organizado.” El Sol de Parral. July 2, 2020. 

Holguín Pérez, Ricardo. “Arrasan con bosques de Chihuahua 4 grupos criminales.” El Heraldo de Chihuahua. July 3, 2020. 

Resendiz, Julian. “ Police escorting miners, shipments of materials following cartel robberies and abductions.”  Border Report. July 23, 2020. 

Villalpando, Rubén. “Blindan minería contra el hampa en Chihuahua.” La Jornada. August 9, 2020. 

Bonello, Deborah. “How Drug Cartels Moved into Illegal Logging in Mexico.” InSight Crime. September 18, 2020. 

Parra, Gisela. “Alerta en Chihuahua por aumento de delitos.” El Diario de Juárez. January 26, 2021. 

Alba, Maribel. “Asesinan a un varón en Arechuyvo, Uruachi.” El Heraldo de Chihuahua. January 28, 2021. 

“Encuentran ejecutados a los hermanos privados de la libertad en Cuauhtémoc.” El Diario de Chihuahua. February 1, 2021. 

Ponce, Norma. “Balacera en Uruachi, Chihuahua, deja cinco personas muertas.” Milenio. February 1, 2021. 

Villalpando, Rubén. “Asesinan a cinco habitantes del Santísimo de Abajo, en Chihuahua.” La Jornada. February 1, 2021. 

“Identifican a los 5 acribillados en Urique; dos murieron.” Tiempo. February 3, 2021. 

“Alianza entre líderes criminales genera “ola” de homicidios en la zona occidente.” El Heraldo de Chihuahua. February 7, 2021. 

Ongoing Prison Clashes Underscore Growing Criminal Violence in Zacatecas

01/25/21 (written by rramos) — The latest outbreak of prison violence in Zacatecas continues to highlight the state’s emergence as a key epicenter of organized crime-related violence in Mexico. In the early morning hours of January 15, a riot erupted at the Cieneguillas Regional Center for Social Reinsertion, a prison located just west of Zacatecas City. Fighting between inmates took place in multiple locations throughout the facility, and lasted roughly two and a half hours. After security forces were deployed to restore order within the prison and the surrounding vicinity, authorities confirmed that at least one prison inmate had been killed, and six more had been injured.

This most recent incident of inmate violence at Cieneguillas prison is merely the latest in a string of violent clashes that have occurred over the past year. In an interview with La Jornada following the January 15 riot, Zacatecas Secretary of Public Security Arturo López Bazán described Cieneguillas as a “time bomb,” and recounted that the prison also suffered a three day-long riot from December 31, 2019 to January 2, 2020 in which 18 inmates were killed and 20 more were injured. López Bazán went on to point out that Cieneguillas was the site of five additional outbreaks of prison violence throughout the rest of 2020.

Cieneguillas prison in the central state of Zacatecas has been the site of frequent prison clashes throughout the past year. Photo: NTR Zacatecas.

Cieneguillas: A Reflection of Expanding Sinaloa Cartel-CJNG Competition

The increasing frequency of violent confrontations between prisoners at Cieneguillas comes at a time in which the organized crime situation in Zacatecas is evolving. As La Jornada reported, many of the inmates housed at Cieneguillas are prone to conflict because they belong to rival organized crime groups that compete in Zacatecas, most notably the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG). Both the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG are reported to be increasing their presence in Zacatecas, with media outlets pointing to numerous narcomantas and videos in which the two groups declare their presence in the state. Concurrently, the two cartels have been assessed to be behind a growing number of deadly clashes in various parts of Zacatecas, including a streak of armed confrontations in and around the city of Jerez throughout November and December 2020.        

In an interview with El Universal last year, Ismael Camberos Hernández, then-public security secretary, stated that Zacatecas had acquired strategic importance for drug trafficking organizations due to its centralized geographic location. In particular, organized crime groups are looking to gain control of two major highways that run through the state and that have become critical routes to transport drugs, including fentanyl, to the northern border with the United States. Camberos identified Federal Highway 54, which runs from the Pacific state of Colima (home to the massive port of Manzanillo) to the U.S. border in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, and Federal Highway 45, which links central Mexico to the U.S. border near Ciudad Juárez, as the coveted trafficking routes that have drawn some of the country’s largest criminal organizations to Zacatecas. Furthermore, Camberos testified before the Zacatecas legislature in June 2020 that while there are other organized crime groups operating in the state, such as the Northeast Cartel and Los Talibanes, the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel are the “main” criminal actors in Zacatecas. He even went on to testify that the CJNG had forged an alliance with Gulf Cartel-linked cells in Zacatecas in an attempt to ward off Sinaloa Cartel incursions coming into the state from neighboring Durango.

Zacatecas: Troubling Hotspot of Violence in Mexico

As a consequence of intensified organized crime competition in the state, Zacatecas is facing a dramatic surge in violence. According to Animal Político, data released by the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP) revealed that Zacatecas was the state that suffered the largest increase in homicides in 2020. The total number of reported homicides skyrocketed from 577 in the period from January to November 2019 to 945 during the same period in 2020, a 63.8% increase in one year. This upward trend is especially worrying for Zacatecas given that violence in Mexico at the national level, while still at extremely high levels, seemed to stagnate somewhat in 2020, with the total number of homicides seeing a minuscule decrease of 0.4% compared to the prior year. In a subsequent interview days after the January 15 riot, Secretary of Public Security López Bazán noted that as the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG have escalated their rivalry in the state, they no longer view the state merely as a transit zone used to transport drugs. Instead, these groups have expanded into other illicit activities, such as extortions and kidnappings, signaling the possibility that the state may face another year of heightened violence in 2021.


Mejía, Irma. “Zacatecas: Merodean cárteles por moda de fentanilo.” El Universal. February 3, 2020.

O’Reilly, Eimhin. “Fentanyl Trade Fuels Cartel Battle in Central Mexico.” InSight Crime. March 2, 2020.

“El CJNG irrumpe en Zacatecas; desafía a rivales y autoridades.” El Financiero. April 20, 2020.

“Cártel del Golfo se une al CJNG en Zacatecas para combatir al de Sinaloa.” Zacatecas Online. June 3, 2020.

Vergara, Rosalía. “El CJNG y el Cártel de Sinaloa se disputan a balazos la plaza de Jerez.” Proceso. December 25, 2020.

Angel, Arturo. “En 2020, la violencia en México se mantuvo en niveles récord; en 11 estados aumentaron asesinatos.” Animal Político. December 29, 2020.

López, Rocío. “Reportan motín en el penal de Cieneguillas, Zacatecas; hay un muerto y seis heridos.” Milenio. January 15, 2021.

Mejía, Irma. “Motín en penal de Cieneguillas, Zacatecas, deja un muerto y seis lesionados.” El Universal. January 15, 2021.

Valadez Rodríguez, Alfredo. “Un reo muerto y seis heridos en motín de penal de Cieneguillas.” La Jornada. January 15, 2021.

Valadez Rodríguez, Alfredo. “Zacatecas, atrapado en la guerra entre los dos principales cárteles.” La Jornada. January 18, 2021.“Tasa de homicidios sigue siendo alta en México pese a COVID.” San Diego Union-Tribune. January 20, 2021.

Former Mexican Secretary of Public Security arrested in Texas

Former Secretary of Public Security giving a speech during his tenure. Photo: The Associated Press, Alexandre Meneghini.
Former Secretary of Public Security giving a speech during his tenure. Photo: The Associated Press, Alexandre Meneghini.

12/19/19 (written by kheinle) — Mexico’s former Secretary of Public Security, Genaro García Luna, was arrested in Dallas, Texas on Monday, December 9. According to The Los Angeles Times, he is thought to be the highest ranking Mexican official ever to be charged with drug trafficking in the United States. He served as Mexico’s Secretary of Public Security (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública, SSP) from 2006 to 2012 during the Calderón Administration. Prior to that, he led Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigación, AFI) from 2001 to 2005 during the Fox Administration.

Four-Count Charge

The indictment against García Luna was unsealed on December 10 in the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Eastern District of New York, leveling three counts of conspiracy to traffic cocaine and one count of making false statements in his U.S. citizenship application. With the former secretary’s protection, the Sinaloa Cartel was able to safely import tons of cocaine and other drugs into the United States between 2006 and 2012. The indictment specifically alleges that García Luna:

  1. “…[conspired] to distribute a controlled substance, intending, knowing and having reasonable cause to believe that such substance would be lawfully imported into the United States from a place outside thereof, which offense involved a substance containing cocaine…”
  2. “…[conspired] to distribute and possess with intent to distribute one or more controlled substances, which offense involved a substance containing cocaine…”
  3. “…[conspired] to import a controlled substance into the United States from a place outside thereof, which offense involved a substance containing cocaine…”
  4. “…[made] one or more materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements and representations, in a matter within the jurisdiction of the executive branch of the Government of the United States…”

Systemic Corruption

García Luna’s arrest is emblematic of the serious challenges facing Mexico. The country is notorious for its inability – in some cases unwillingness – to curtail corruption, to check the extremely high levels of impunity, and to hold elected officials accountable. In García Luna’s case, as Secretary of Public Security from 2006 to 2012, he was “the man considered to be the brains behind the Mexican government’s militarized war on drug traffickers,” writes The New York Times. According to the indictment, however, on two occasions García Luna received briefcases full of cash from the Sinaloa Cartel totaling USD $3 million and USD $5 million. Thus, he was simultaneously receiving millions of dollars in exchange for protecting the Sinaloa Cartel and allowing it to operate with impunity while leading the government’s “tough on crime” security plan targeting the Sinaloa Cartel, among others.

In hind sight, García Luna undermined his own strategy. “We are obligated to confront crime,” he said in an interview in 2008 discussing the potential to negotiate with cartels. “That is our job, that is our duty, and we will not consider a pact.”

Funds Received

This indictment unveiled in the Eastern District of New York also sheds some light on the previously unaccounted for growth in García Luna’s personal wealth, as detailed by El Universal. “According to official numbers, García Luna’s salary increase[d] by 120% and his assets increased their value five times.” In 2002, the former secretary earned MXN $1.7 million in 2002, but then jumped to MXN $3.7 million in 2008. He and his wife also owned two homes valued around MXN $500,000 each in 2002, but then owned a MXN $7.5 million-home in 2008 worth more than seven times that his two properties combined just six years earlier. They then purchased two homes just four years later in 2012 in Florida valued at USD $5.5 million combined. There have long been questions surrounding García Luna’s ability to purchase such luxury homes; the indictment may help fill in these gaps.

A Step Forward

With the blatant show of corruption on display in García Luna’s indictment, his arrest is being applauded. “García Luna stands accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes from ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel while [García Luna] controlled Mexico’s Federal Police Force and was responsible for ensuring public safety in Mexico,” wrote U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue. His “arrest demonstrates our resolve to bring to justice those who help cartels inflict devastating harm on the United States and Mexico, regardless of the positions they held while committing their crimes.”

If convicted, García Luna faces between ten years and life in prison. Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) is also working with the Secretary of Foreign Affairs (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, SRE) to extradite García Luna to face charges in Mexico.


Indictment. CR 19-576. United States District Court, Eastern District of New York. December 4, 2019.

Espino, Manuel. “FGR solicitará extradición de Genaro García Luna.” El Universal. December 10, 2019.

Gringlas, Sam. “Former Top Mexican Security Official Arrested On Cocaine Trafficking Charges.” National Public Radio. December 10, 2019.

Linthicum, Kate. “Former Mexican security official arrested in U.S., accused of taking millions in bribes from ‘El Chapo.’” The Los Angeles Times. December 10, 2019.

Press Release. “Former Mexican Secretary of Public Security Arrested for Drug-Trafficking Conspiracy and Making False Statements.” Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of New York. December 10, 2019.

Semple, Kirk and Paulina Villegas. “Arrest of Top Crime Fights Stuns Mexico, Where Corruption Is All Too Routine.” The New York Times. December 11, 2019.

Zavala, Susana. “Genaro García Luna inexplicably built a fortune in 6 years.” El Universal. December 12, 2019.

Nine Members of Local Mormon Family Killed in Cartel-Related Ambush in Mexico

One of the vehicles seen here, torched from the ambush. Photo: Meghan Dhaliwal, The New York Times.

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.  

Motives Involved

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.

Family and friends mourn the death of their loved ones following the November 4 attack. Photo: Meghan Dhaliwal, The New York Times.

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.

U.S.-Mexico Relations

Source: The New York Times.

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.”

Next Steps

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.


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Kaleem, Jaweed. “La masacre de ciudadanos estadounidenses apunta a la comunidad mormona con profundas raíces en México.” Los Angeles Times. November 6, 2019.

Linthicum, Kate. “For Mexico ambush victims, there was no safety in numbers.” Los Angeles Times. November 6, 2019.

Santiago, Patricia Vélez. “Autoridades presumen que ataque a familia LeBarón en México se debió a lucha territorial entre dos grupos delictivos.” Univisión. November 6, 2019.

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.