SALT LAKE CITY — A deadly massacre in Mexico of three mothers and six children with Utah ties sparked strong reactions nationwide Tuesday, including from President Donald Trump, who said the U.S. is ready to wage war on drug cartels.
The women and children — including 8-month-old twins — were murdered Monday in ambush attacks about 5 miles outside of 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, about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. At least five additional children were transported to a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, for treatment, according to Mexican Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo.
In addition to the nine who were killed, family members said six other children were wounded — including a 9-year-old girl who was shot in the arm and found hours later — and two who escaped unharmed, including a 7-month-old girl who was found still in her car seat in one of the vehicles that was riddled with bullet holes.
Durazo said the gunmen may have mistaken the group’s large SUVs for rival gangs, something relatives of the victims have also said in social media posts.
Trump said on Twitter that the United States stands ready to battle the drug cartels with Mexico.
“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. If Mexico needs or requests help in cleaning out these monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively. 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 president said in a series of tweets.
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. If Mexico needs or requests help in cleaning out these.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 5, 2019
....monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively. 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 5, 2019
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. We merely await a call from your great new president!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 5, 2019
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney also tweeted Tuesday: “Ann and I are heartbroken for the victims of the horrific attacks in Mexico. Our prayers are with their families who have suffered such an unspeakable tragedy. The U.S. must work with Mexican officials to hold accountable those responsible for this senseless violence.”
Ann and I are heartbroken for the victims of the horrific attacks in Mexico. Our prayers are with their families who have suffered such an unspeakable tragedy. The U.S. must work with Mexican officials to hold accountable those responsible for this senseless violence.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) November 5, 2019
Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declined Trump’s offer on Tuesday, saying during a news conference, “The worst thing you can have is war.”
”We declared war, and it didn’t work,” López Obrador said, referring to the policies of previous administrations. “That is not an option.”
A relative living in Herriman, Taylor Langford, described the victims as members of a “fundamentalist” group that practices polygamy. 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.
Jhon LeBaron posted an account of the tragedy from his cousin, Kendra Miller, on his Facebook page.
Three women and 14 children were traveling in a caravan of three vehicles in the mountains between the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua. Many of the family members were born in Mexico and have dual citizenship.
Two of the vehicles were headed to Chihuahua to see family members while the third was driven by Rhonita Miller, who was going to Phoenix to pick up her husband at the airport, according to Langford and Kendra Miller’s lengthy social media post.
Rhonita Miller was killed and burned, along with her four children, including twin babies.
“They were ambushed by the Mexican cartels; shot, burned, and murdered in cold blood,” Kendra Miller said.
While authorities had not confirmed Tuesday who was responsible for the attack, Durazo said the families were “ambushed” starting about 1 p.m. Monday by an “armed group.”
Family members have identified the deceased as Rhonita Maria Miller, 30; Howard Jacob Miller Jr., 12; Krystal Bellaine Miller, 10; and 8-month-old twins Titus Alvin Miller and Tiana Gricel Miller.
“It was awful seeing the babies’ little skulls just sitting there on the floor of the car burnt and broken,” Kendra Miller told NBC News.
Langford said the other two cars, which had been about 10 miles down the road, were attacked next. One of the women was shot after jumping out of her SUV “waving her arms to let the attackers know that it was women and children in the vehicles,” according to the Miller post.
Christina Marie Langford Johnson, 29, had her baby in her car; Dawna Ray Langford, 43, had nine children in hers. Both mothers were killed. Trevor Harvey Langford, 11; and Rogan Jay Langford, 2; were also shot to death, according to the family.
Amazingly, 7-month-old Faith Marie Johnson was found alive and uninjured in the vehicle riddled with bullet holes, still sitting in her car seat, the post states. Family members believe her mother put her on the floor to protect her while being fired upon.
Devin Blake Langford, who is 13, “hid his six other siblings in the bushes and covered them with branches to keep them safe” while he walked 14 miles back to La Mora to get help, according to the family.
“Devin’s uncles armed themselves with guns and returned to try and find the hidden children, knowing many of them were injured. They didn’t get far before realizing they would be risking death, since there had been continual shooting for hours, all over the mountains near La Mora. The group of men waited a while for reinforcements, and around 7:30, found the hidden children,” according to the post.
Kendra Miller wrote about the conditions of the other children: Mckenzie Rayne Langford, 9, was found after a four-hour search with a grazing bullet wound to her arm; Kylie Evelyn Langford, 14, was shot in the foot; Cody Greyson Langford, 8, was shot in the jaw and the leg; Jake Ryder Langford, 6, was not injured; Xander Boe Langford, 4, was shot in the back; Brixon Oliver Langford, 9 months, was “shot in the chest, open flesh wound, bullet graze on wrist.”
By 5 p.m., members of the Mexican militia and National Guard were positioning themselves in the region, Durazo stated, with patrols starting by 6:30 p.m. By 7:20 p.m. the attorney general of Chihuahua sent troops to Janos, Chihuahua, and government officials began an official search effort by 8:30 p.m, according to Durazo.
The Mexican military assisted in transporting the wounded children by helicopter to the Tucson hospital Monday night. Five siblings remained hospitalized late Tuesday. Relative Aaron Staddon, of Queen Creek, Arizona, said they were all in stable condition and recovering, but the child who was shot in the jaw will need extensive plastic surgery.
He said the family expects the children will be transported to a Phoenix facility Wednesday.
Austin Cloes, who lives in Herriman, says his extended family members who were killed loved their children and enjoyed quiet lives based around a successful pecan farming operation.
Cloes said Tuesday that he saw all the victims at a family reunion in Mexico last summer. He knew his cousin Dawna Ray Langford best, calling her a loving and caring woman who took pride in her children.
“There’s obviously no words to describe the pain of the situation that everyone is feeling. Everyone is shocked and scared to go home for funerals and wondering what to do. It’s honestly really chaotic right now,” said Emily Langford, who lost her mother, Dawna Langford, and two brothers, Trevor and Rogan.
Trish Cloes, an aunt to Dawna Langford, who also lives in Herriman, said the family has nothing to do with the drug cartels. She described the victims as simple farmers who stick to themselves and never look for any trouble.
“How is it even possible that a needless act like this happens, a needless murder? These women and children were slaughtered. The families are devastated and we’re all just coming together,” she said.
Utah Gov. Gary Hebert tweeted, “Devastated to hear of the cold-blooded attacks in Mexico. I am heartsick for the victims and their families. Together, we must find a way to end the callous and cruel violence cartels inflict on innocent victims.”
“We are heartbroken to hear of the tragedy that has touched these families in Mexico,” Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a statement. “Though it is our understanding that they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our love, prayers and sympathies are with them as they mourn and remember their loved ones.”
Christopher James Blythe, religion scholar at BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, has studied the interwoven history of different religious groups in the northern Mexico area.
”This is a group of independent Mormon fundamentalists so they don’t label themselves as a specific denomination of Mormon fundamentalism,” Blythe said, including the well-known Fundamentalist LDS Church or the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times, which established Colonia LeBaron.
A sizable community of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has been in northern Mexico for generations but is not affiliated with any of the offshoot sects, also remains in the area today, according to Blythe.
The U.S. State Department said Tuesday it was aware of the situation in Mexico.
“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.”
Christopher Landau, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, tweeted Tuesday in Spanish, “The safety of our fellow citizens is our top priority. I’m very closely following the situation between Sonora and Chihuahua.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also commented about the killings, saying on Twitter: “Deeply saddened by the horrific news out of Mexico this morning. Our prayers are with the families of the victims of this senseless tragedy and I hope the Mexican government will work with us to bring the killers to justice.”
Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said in a statement: “It’s outrageous that mothers and children cannot drive in the area without being gunned down by these violent criminals. I learned from my recent visit with Republicans and Democrats to border facilities in McAllen, Texas that the drug cartels operate with near impunity and are a threat to the safety of U.S. and Mexican citizens, to asylum-seekers from Central America, and to our border security. My deepest sympathies go to the family members and friends of the shooting victims.”
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes tweeted, “The violent murders of nine Americans in Mexico — including six children — are nothing less than horrific and despicable. Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones and our office pledges to continue fighting against the addictive and deadly drugs that drive the cartels.”
A GoFundMe campaign was started by family members to help raise money for medical and funeral expenses.
Offshoot sects of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the region have been the targets of extortion attempts and victims of violence in the past. In 2009, Benjamin LeBaron, 31, was shot and killed after denouncing cartel members who had kidnapped his brother and demanded $1 million, which he refused to pay.
Contributing: Associated Press, Dan Rascon, Simone Seikaly