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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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.

‘El Chapo’ Guzmán arrested in Mexico

02/22/14 – Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera, one of the most wanted criminals in the world and leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful criminal organization in Mexico, was arrested on Saturday, February 22. ‘El Chapo’ was taken into custody in the tourist city of Mazatlán, in the State of Sinaloa in the North Pacific coast of Mexico. The arrest was carried out by elements of the Mexican Navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR) with the support of the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR), in a coordinated operation by several Mexican law enforcement agencies in which U.S. authorities also participated. Not a single shot was fired during the operation.

In a public address at the Navy Hangar in Mexico City’s Airport, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam confirmed the detention and the identity of Guzmán Loera, and recognized the coordination amongst agencies from Mexico and the United States. After a short speech by Murillo Karam, reporters were able to briefly photograph and film the detained while he was escorted by members of the special forces of the Navy to a Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) helicopter. The helicopter then conducted ‘El Chapo’ to a high-security prison in Almoloya de Juárez, State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex), followed by two helicopters of the Mexican military.

El "Chapo" transported by the Mexican Navy. Photo: Reuters.

El “Chapo” transported by the Mexican Navy. Photo: Reuters.

Over the past several months, U.S. and Mexican authorities have dealt a series of blows to the Sinaloa Federation, headed by legendary figures ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán and Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada García, particularly targeting groups closer to the latter. As reported by Justice in Mexico, on November 20, 2013 U.S. authorities captured Serafín Zambada Ortíz, the son of ‘El Mayo.’ Zambada Ortíz (23), also known as ‘Sera,’ was captured at the border crossing in Nogales, Arizona, while trying to enter the United States from Mexico through the pedestrian lane, accompanied by his wife. Zambada Ortíz is the second son of Zambada to face criminal charges in the United States. Sera’s brother, Vicente ‘El Vicentillo’ Zambada Niebla, was extradited from Mexico and is awaiting trial in Chicago.

Late last year on December 30, 2013, José Rodrigo Aréchiga Gamboa, also known as ‘El Chino Ántrax,’ a high-ranking lieutenant in the Sinaloa Cartel was arrested in the Netherlands by Dutch police at the airport after his flight landed in Amsterdam. Aréchiga was indicted on December 20 by a Southern California federal grand jury for conspiracy to import and distribute drugs, and launder money. On January 3, the U.S. government unsealed the indictment and formally requested that the Dutch extradite Aréchiga to California to face the charges. Aréchiga is considered one of the top enforcers in the powerful Sinaloa Cartel and head of the cartel’s enforcement cell known as Los Ántrax that works specifically for ‘El Mayo’ to provide protection for him and his family, and that offers top hit men for cartel operations.

Last week, prior to the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Mexico for the North American Summit, SEMAR conducted several operations in the State of Sinaloa where they detained about ten members of the Sinaloa Cartel and seized drugs, weapons, and properties. Among those detained is a man known as “El 19,” alleged chief of security for ‘El Mayo.’ Sources suggest that the Navy was close to capturing ‘El Mayo’ and possibly even ‘El Chapo’ during these operations, but they nevertheless managed to escape.

The series of arrests and operations that impacted the Sinaloa Cartel and the closest circle to ‘El Mayo’ Zambada raised suspicions of a break-up within the organization, particularly between Guzmán and Zambada. Whether or not this was the case, and if the arrest of ‘El Chapo’ was in connection to that “alleged” break-up, it is still unclear what the future of the organization will be with the capture of ‘El Chapo’ and the strikes to ‘El Mayo,’ particularly when the organization managed to consolidate its power in Mexico above all other criminal organizations, most notably the Zetas organization, which received the most significant blows from the Mexican government over the past few years and whose leadership was presumably dismantled. Many believe that the Mexican and U.S. governments have long favored the Sinaloa Cartel over its more volatile counterparts for being a more business-oriented organization.

Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán was named by Forbes magazine as one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. After escaping from prison in 2001, Guzmán committed to gaining territory from other criminal organizations by forming alliances and succeeded in creating the most solid and powerful of Mexico’s criminal organizations with connections worldwide. ‘El Chapo’ was the most wanted criminal in the United States after the death of Osama Bin Laden.


“La Marina sitia Culiacán con un fuerte operativo terrestre y aéreo.” Vanguardia. February 17, 2014.

Gómora, Doris. “Marina mantiene operative de búsqueda en Culiacán.” El Universal. February 17, 2014.

Perez, Evan. “Capturan en México al Chapo Guzmán.” CNN Español. February 22, 2014.

Associated Press. “US official: Sinaloa drug chief ‘Chapo’ Guzman arrested by US, Mexican authorities in Mexico.” The Washington Post. February 22, 2014.

La Reina del Pacífico deported to Mexico after release from U.S. prison

Sandra Ávila Beltrán. Photo: NY Daily News

Sandra Ávila Beltrán. Photo: NY Daily News

08/20/13 – Sandra Ávila Beltrán, known as the “Queen of the Pacific” (“La Reina del Pacífico”), was repatriated to Mexico from the United States the morning of August 20, less than one week after her release from a Miami, Florida federal prison. Ávila only served 12 months of her 70-month sentence handed down last year by a federal judge in Florida for her involvement in drug trafficking–specifically importing and distributing cocaine to the United States between 1994 and 2004–, and for her work with her Colombian boyfriend Juan Diego Espinosa, “El Tigre,” in transporting cocaine from Colombia to Mexico. In July 2013, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the five years Ávila had served in a Mexican prison prior to her extradition to the United States in August 2012 counted towards her 70-month sentence, thus ordering her release.

Despite her removal from the Miami prison, La Reina del Pacífico–the niece of the infamous Mexican drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, “the Godfather,” who created the Guadalajara Cartel–is not yet in the clear. According to Ávila’s lawyer, Jorge Espino Santillán, his client faces charges of “operating with illicit proceeds,” although the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) had previously reported that Ávila had no outstanding charges.

Ávila–who was transferred to detention centers in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, before being flown from El Paso to Mexico City –was immediately turned over by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to PGR officials upon landing. According to Univisión Noticias, she is now en route to the women’s prison in Puente Grande, Guadalajara–the state capital of Jalisco. Although Ávila’s lawyer had filed for an amparo on August 14 with the Fourth District Court in Criminal Proceedings to keep his client out of prison while the remaining criminal charges are processed, Ávila was only awarded temporary freedom while the courts determined if the amparo would indeed be granted. The ruling, however, was overturned before Ávila’s deportation after the PGR presented the new charges of illicit proceeds.

To read more about La Reina del Pacífico’s history, including her arrest, extradition, and recent deportation, click here.


“’La Reina del Pacífico’” Removed from Solitary Confinement.” Justice in Mexico Project. March 1, 2013. 

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Fausset, Richard. “Mexico’s ‘Queen of the Pacific’ heading home, but what’s next?” Los Angeles Times. August 15, 2013.

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“Sandra Ávila Beltrán, la Reina del Pacífico, llegó a México.” Univión Noticias. August 20, 2013. 

“Godfather” of Mexican drug trafficking released from prison

Rafael Caro Quintero. Photo: DEA International Fugitives.

Rafael Caro Quintero. Photo: DEA International Fugitives.

08/12/13 – Rafael Caro Quintero (61), one of the most important kingpins in Mexican history and once considered one of the godfathers of drug trafficking, was released on Friday, August 9, from the Puente Grande prison after serving 28 years for the kidnapping, torture, and killing of undercover Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. Caro Quintero was originally captured in San José, Costa Rica in 1985 during an operation launched by the DEA after he allegedly fled from Mexico with support from Mexican authorities.

Originally sentenced to serve 40 years in prison, Caro Quintero’s early release came after a federal judge found him wrongfully prosecuted and tried by federal authorities for the killing of Kiki Camarena. According to the judge, the sentencing by a federal court was in breach of Mexican law because the DEA agent was acting undercover with no diplomatic or consular status; hence the crime was a regular homicide under state jurisdiction and the federal courts had no authority to prosecute and try the case. Caro Quintero was acquitted of other charges against him and already served the time in prison for the only other crime he was originally found guilty of—drug production and trafficking.

Caro Quintero, who once offered to pay the Mexican foreign debt if released from prison, is one of the founders—along with Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo, and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo “Don Neto”—of the Guadalajara Cartel, the most powerful criminal organization in Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s. Known as the first generation of Mexican drug traffickers, after the arrest of the “Godfathers” the Guadalajara Cartel split into new organizations—the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel—that grew to be the most powerful during the 1990s and after.

The kidnapping and killing of Kiki Camarena was allegedly planned and executed by Caro Quintero in coordination with Felix Gallardo and Don Neto after DEA investigations led to a major bust of the “El Búfalo” ranch in Chihuahua in 1984. The operation that led to the seizure of around 1,000 hectares of mariguana plantations allegedly cost Caro Quintero—owner of the ranch—around $8 billion (USD). Kiki Camarena was kidnapped on February 7, 1985, along with his Mexican pilot, Alfredo Avelar, in Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. Both victims were tortured and killed, and their bodies found almost a month later in the neighboring state of Michoacán. After pressure from the U.S. Government, Caro Quintero was arrested in Costa Rica on April 4, 1985; Don Neto in Puerto Vallarta on April 7, 1985; and Felix Gallardo in Guadalajara on April 8, 1989. These operations also led to the arrest of almost 100 police officers from municipal and state agencies, as well as from the Federal Direction of Security (Dirección Federal de Seguridad, DFS) and the Judicial Federal Police (Policía Judicial Federal, PJF). The three kingpins then accused each other of being responsible for the killing of Camarena.

After the DEA murder, a period of tension rose between the United States and Mexico. U.S. authorities denounced the corruption of Mexican security agencies such as the DFS and the PJF, at the same time that U.S. authorities were conducting operations in breach of Mexican sovereignty, such as the abduction of Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain who was prosecuted in the United States for assisting in Kiki Camarena’s torture. Although Alvarez Machain was acquitted, his case before U.S. courts later became an important precedent for international jurisdiction. It is believed that the pressure by the United States not only led to the capture of the Guadalajara Cartel leaders, but also to the dismantling of the DFS—the political police of the Mexican government—, which was formally dismantled in May 1985 after its involvement the year before in the planning and murder of award-winning Mexican journalist Manuel Buendía.

As reported by the Justice in Mexico Project, there has been a recent chill in security cooperation between Mexico and the United States, and the release of Caro Quintero has been perceived as a significant setback to Mexico in its war against organized crime. The DEA said it was “deeply troubled” and “extremely disappointed” by the Mexican court’s decision and immediately placed Caro Quintero at the top of the most wanted international criminals. The agency announced that it will seek the extradition of Caro Quintero to be prosecuted in the United States after an initial petition was denied by Mexican authorities. According to international media, the release could potentially raise new “tensions” between the two governments, though Mexican authorities suggested an eventual extradition could be granted if their U.S. counterparts are able to substantiate the request.


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Associated Press. “Mexico drug kingpin Caro Quintero ordered released on appeal after 28 years.” Washington Post. August 9, 2013.

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Justice in Mexico Project Releases Fact Sheet on the Mérida Initiative


06/19/13 (written by tianacarriedo) – The Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego has released a new fact sheet on the Mérida Initiative, the $1.9 billion (USD) security assistance package currently at the center of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral security agenda. The fact sheet outlines the goals, origins, and funding trends of the Mérida Initiative. With the recent election of Enrique Peña Nieto in December 2012, the Mérida Initiative has received renewed focus by U.S. and Mexican lawmakers and government officials, primarily due to the new Mexican president’s stated desire to recast the U.S.-Mexico relationship by prioritizing trade and the economy over bilateral security cooperation. Click here to read the “Fact Sheet: Mérida Initiative.”

In the domestic security realm, the Peña Nieto administration has prioritized violence reduction—by emphasizing human rights, crime prevention, and citizen participation—while de-emphasizing confrontation with drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), a pointed departure from the security policy of former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) who tackled DTOs head on, often with the support and assistance of multiple U.S. agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The high level of binational cooperation between officials is currently at stake, as reports indicate that the Mexican government has recently sought to limit, and in some cases cut off entirely, U.S. access to Mexican security and intelligence institutions and personnel.

Indeed, reports by the Washington Post and the New York Times have pointed to a chill in collaboration between Mexican and U.S. officials, with U.S. agents complaining of reduced access to their Mexican partners, especially in areas of intelligence sharing. One significant institutional change that has possibly contributed to a more limited bilateral security relationship is the funneling of all U.S. contact with Mexican government officials through the Interior Ministry (Secretaría de Gobernación, Segob). U.S. officials were previously able to interface directly with their Mexican counterparts at various Mexican agencies, generally without interference. This new “one-stop window” and the removal of U.S. officials and contractors at various security centers in Mexico, including a fusion center in Monterrey, Nuevo León, have all contributed to the concern that the unprecedented level of collaboration on security matters that characterized the Calderón years is a thing of the past.

Despite these concerns, there is still ample room for a U.S. role in Mexico’s new crime prevention and violence reduction security strategy. The Mérida Initiative has four priorities, or pillars: to disrupt organized criminal groups, strengthen institutions, build a 21st century border, and create strong and resilient communities. All but the first pillar have received limited consideration up to the present; however, with Peña Nieto’s vow to focus on crime prevention—by reorganizing the federal police, improving policies to find missing persons, and re-focusing on judicial form, among others—there is now momentum to devote more funds and attention to the other three pillars. Though little of this new non-military strategy to combat crime and violence in Mexico has been clearly delineated, much less implemented, the new thrust is important given that the previous security strategy of the Calderón adminstration, which was in part financed by Mérida Initiative funds, did not necessarily yield positive results—in fact, violence increased, with over 60,000 drug-related deaths and 26,000 disappearances reported during the last sexenio (though some figures indicate a leveling of violence in 2012).

The United States may find that the change in priorities of the Mexican government, from military-style operations to institution building programs, and the corollary of reduced intelligence sharing and operational support, need not mean the demise of either the Mérida Initiative or the strong bilateral security relationship. Rather, U.S. financing and assistance for the Mérida Initiative, which has in any case been on a downward trend, will increasingly be marshaled to support police training, judicial reform, border modernization, and youth programs, or simply put, programs aimed at creating and strengthening the rule of law, the absence of which has allowed organized crime to flourish in Mexico.


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