MEXICO CITY — Drug cartel gunmen ambushed three SUVs along a dirt road, slaughtering at least six children and three women — all of them U.S. citizens living in northern Mexico — in a grisly attack that left one of their SUVs a burned-out, bullet-riddled hulk, authorities said Tuesday.
Another child was wounded, and one was missing. The dead included 6-month-old twins.
Mexican Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo said the attackers may have mistaken the group’s large SUVs for those of rival gangs. He said at least five children were taken to Phoenix for treatment.
A relative said the victims lived in the hamlet of La Mora in Sonora state, a decades-old settlement founded as an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A number of the victims were believed to be members of the LeBaron family.
La Mora is about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. Many of the church’s members were born in Mexico and thus have dual citizenship. While some of the split-off factions were once polygamous, many no longer are. Extended families live in farming communities clustered around the Chihuahua-Sonora state border.
The group was attacked Monday while traveling in a convoy of three SUVs toward Pancho Villa, Chihuhua. The relative asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
The relative said he had located the burned-out SUV containing the remains of his nephew’s wife and her four children — the twin babies and two other children, 8 and 10. Authorities the Chevy Tahoe’s gas tank had apparently been hit by gunfire and exploded.
”The mafia vehicles got her and four of her kids and ... burnt them to a crisp,” said the relative.
Two women and two other children were later found dead.
In a tweet, President Donald Trump immediately offered to help Mexico “wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador refused that approach, saying at a Tuesday news conference, “The worst thing you can have is war.”
“We declared war, and it didn’t work,” Lopez Obrador said, referring to the policies of previous administrations. “That is not an option.”
Still, it was the second failure in recent weeks for López Obrador’s “hugs not bullets” anti-crime strategy. Two weeks ago, Mexican troops had to release a drug lord after his supporters mounted armed attacks in Culiacan, Sinaloa.
“The United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively,” Trump tweeted. “The great new President of Mexico has made this a big issue, but the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!
The prosecutor’s office in Sonora state gave a description of the crime scene on the Sonora-Chihuahua border. They said police first found the burned-out Chevy Tahoe with the five dead. About 11 miles up the mountainous dirt road, they found a Suburban with a dead woman and two dead children inside. Farther on, they found a second Suburban, and about 15 yards away, the body of a woman.
Police found a total of about 200 spent shell casings from assault rifles and other weapons at the various crime scenes.
”A wonderful family and friends from Utah got caught between two vicious drug cartels, who were shooting at each other, with the result being many great American people killed, including young children, and some missing,” Trump wrote.
Durazo said police, soldiers and the National Guard searched area for the missing child.
The relative said: “We’re guessing right now, but we believe it was a case of mistaken identity. They just opened fire on the vehicle because it was an SUV.”
Durazo said the Sinaloa cartel had an important presence on the Sonora side, but that a rival gang was trying to invade the territory from the Chihuahua side.
The relative said he saw cartel gunmen gathered about a mile away after the ambush. “The cartels from Sonora, there were probably 50 or 60 of them, armed to the teeth,” he said.
The prosecutor’s office said a suspect had been detained near Agua Prieta, but it was unclear whether the person had taken part in the ambush. The suspect had assault rifles and a .50-caliber sniper rifle and was holding two bound kidnap victims, authorities said.
It was not the first time that members of the breakaway church had been attacked in northern Mexico. In 2009, Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who was related to those killed on Monday, was slain in 2009 in Chihuahua state.