LA MORA, Mexico — Families of those killed in an ambush attack in north Mexico returned to their hometown Thursday under heavy protection from the Mexican military to begin laying their loved ones to rest.

The first funeral was held for the three mothers and six children killed Monday by suspected cartel members while driving in a remote, mountainous region in the state of Sonora near the border of Chihuahua.

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Family members posted videos on Facebook showing a large caravan of vehicles being escorted into La Mora Wednesday evening under heavy security, many with U.S. license plates from as far away as North Dakota. La Mora is 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.

Hundreds of visitors arrived in La Mora, a town of 300, where Mexican soldiers were seen guarding the entrance to the town.

Three pine caskets carrying children and their mother, Dawna Langford, painted a painful scene where mourners gathered to pay their respects and try to make sense of what happened.

“I know that the nine that lost their lives are in the arms of Jesus, they are happy and safe and free of pain and sorrow. It is us left behind that are hurting.” — Leah Langford-Staddon

“She was a great mother and a beautiful daughter,” said Langford’s mother, Karen Wooley.

“Justice absolutely needs to come and this needs to stop,” she said. “They’re women and children — little babies. And it’s just too much for me to comprehend.”

“I’m just feeling like it’s still a nightmare, like it’s not even real yet,” said Nefi LeBaron.

The first funeral was held three days after a caravan of three SUVs set out from La Mora with three women and 14 children. Two of the cars were headed to Chihuahua to visit relatives. The other to Phoenix. About 5 miles outside of town, the first SUV was attacked with a barrage of gunfire.

Rhonita Miller, 30, was killed and burned, along with her four children — twin 8-month-old babies Titus Alvin Miller and Tiana Gricel Miller, Howard Jacob Miller Jr., 12, and Krystal Bellaine Miller, 10.

Ten miles down the road, the other vehicles were also fired on. One mother jumped out of her car waving her hands in an effort to tell the gunmen that women and children were in the vehicles. But the shooting continued.

Christina Marie Langford Johnson, 29, had her 7-month baby in her car, She was killed but her baby, Faith, miraculously survived unharmed. Dawna Ray Langford, 43, had nine children in her SUV. She was killed along with Trevor Harvey Langford, 11, and Rogan Jay Langford, 2.

Five other children were injured but survived. Some were still being treated Thursday at an Arizona hospital.

As the funerals were occurring Thursday in Mexico, Leah Langford-Staddon posted on Facebook from the Tucson hospital where her nephew was being treated.

“I feel more anguish and sadness and anger and hurt and shock than I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I find my self questioning why? Why did God allow evil men to murder his most beautiful innocent children and mothers? To be taken away from their husbands and remaining children? Why are there such evil sick heartless soulless people in the world?” she wrote.

“Why does my special innocent little nephew have to go through multiple surgeries to repair the damage done by bullets? How can my heart hurt so much that it feels dead inside? I wish I could somehow take every bullet that hit these 5 children.”

But Langford-Staddon said the incident has not lessened her faith.

“I know that the nine that lost their lives are in the arms of Jesus, they are happy and safe and free of pain and sorrow. It is us left behind that are hurting. May God bless the fathers and children that are mourning during the funeral today with peace and comfort, and may he wrap them in his arms today and always.”

The massacre has left some in La Mora saying the town is no longer safe, while others say the region has become increasingly unsafe and the government has lost control over certain areas of Mexico due in part to unwillingness of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office a year ago, to declare war on drug cartels.

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Madelyn Staddon, whose cousins were among those killed, accompanied by her dad, Aaron Staddon, posted a song she performed on YouTube called “Defender,” by Rita Springe, along with a slideshow. She dedicated the song to her cousins and aunt who were killed, and hoped it would provide comfort to other family members.

“We’re very saddened that something like this could happen to three mothers and to all these children that were just traveling. I feel angry and I’m pretty sure most of this community feels angry and upset with the way the security system is working here in Mexico,” said Elsie Liddiard, a relative of those killed, speaking outside the funerals in La Mora on Thursday.

“The country is suffering very much from violence,” said William Stubbs, a pecan and alfalfa farmer who serves on a community security committee in the American-dominated hamlet of Colonia LeBaron. “You see it all over. And it ain’t getting better. It’s getting worse.”

The Agency for Criminal Investigation for the state of Sonora posted on its Facebook page Thursday that the attorney general of Sonora is personally supervising the investigation into the killings. She met with relatives of the family and pledged to seek justice, saying the crime affects all of Sonora, according to the statement written in Spanish.

Claudia Indira Contreras Córdova said the way to honor the victims is with justice and to take positive actions that affect all of society, and to ensure the crimes do not happen again, according to the post.

She also said the Mexico Attorney General’s Office also pledged its support in the investigation, which she said will provide needed experts and equipment, such as in the fields of explosives and fires. The burned out SUVs, for example, will be processed by experts at a forensics lab in Hermosillo. Ballistic experts would also be examining the gunfire from the scene.

“We’ve always known the dangers,” said Steven Langford, who was mayor of La Mora from 2015 to 2018. “We’ve seen the people doing their deal. We always had the policy, ‘We don’t bother them.’

“We never dreamed something like this could happen.”

More funerals were planned for Friday.

Contributing: Associated Press, Dan Rascon