SALT LAKE CITY — A caravan of women and children with U.S. citizenship living in northern Mexico came under attack by cartel members Monday morning, resulting in the deaths of at least one woman and four children, relatives based in Utah say.
Relatives said three women and more than a dozen children were traveling in separate vehicles together from La Mora, a decades-old settlement in the state of Sonora founded by early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The attack, which took place about five miles outside of La Mora, may have been a case of mistaken identity, some relatives said.
An Associated Press update Tuesday morning raised the reported death toll to nine, including three women and six children.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Monday night that the department was aware of the reports.
“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,” the department said in a statement issued Monday evening.
Relatives said one of the women — Rhonita Maria LeBaron — and four of her children were killed when the car they were traveling in was shot at and caught fire. The four children in LeBaron’s car were two 6-month-old babies and two other children, ages 8 and 10, according to social media posts.
As of Monday night, confusion remained around how many women and children were missing and how many were still alive. Family members on social media said they believed the other two women and as many as 13 children had been kidnapped by cartel members.
A relative living in Herriman, Taylor Langford, said one of the older children was able to escape on foot and made it back to La Mora, where he told family members that the two remaining adult women and five children had been killed.
The boy said he had been able to hide some of the younger children who had survived, according to Langford, and some of the children had not yet been found by Monday evening. Another relative posted on Facebook that six of the children had been left abandoned but alive on a roadside.
Langford, who grew up in the Mexico community and now lives in Utah, said his family has had roots in La Mora for generations and traveled the same road countless times without issue. Many members of the community were born in Mexico and have dual citizenship.
While “cartel violence has been going on for a long time,” with civilians occasionally caught in the crossfire, Langford said Monday’s reported attack on the women and children was “a different story.”
“It’s a whole new level,” Langford said. “The cartel is completely out of control and the government isn’t doing anything about it.”
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 Associated Press reported.
With questions remaining and some people still missing, other members of the La Mora community were “hunkered down and praying for protection,” Langford said.
Meanwhile, watching the situation unfold from Utah, “it’s extremely hard to feel so helpless,” Langford said. “We’re anxiously waiting by our phones for the next call to see what’s become of it.”
Contributing: Matt Rascon