In early November, a man witnessed a horrific scene in rural northern Mexico: a scorched, bullet-ridden vehicle that had been carrying his family members. Down the road were two other vehicles, similarly damaged. Over the next few days, the scene came to be known as the site of a brutal massacre, where nine women and children — dual U.S.–Mexican citizens who lived in two nearby Mormon hamlets, Colonia LeBaron La Mora — were slaughtered.
But right now, the New York Times reports, officials have more questions than they do answers. Who murdered these women and children, and why? While some officials are speculating that members of a drug cartel mistook the vehicles as belonging to a rival gang, others — including relatives of the victims — say that the traditionalist family was targeted due to the community’s history of speaking out against drug-related violence. Here’s what we know so far.
Three women and six children were murdered in Mexico.
On November 4, gunmen opened fire on three cars traveling in broad daylight along a rural road from the Mexican state of Sonora toward Arizona, the Los Angeles Times reports. Inside the cars were three mothers and their children. Some were shot at close range; others, including 6-month-old twins, burned to death after the vehicles caught fire. (It’s unclear how the cars caught fire, or if they were set on fire.) The three mothers and six of their children were killed, though several children survived. One survivor, who is approximately 12, hiked several miles to his family members in La Mora to inform them of what had happened.
“When you know there are babies tied in a car seat that are burning because of some twisted evil that’s in this world, it’s just hard to cope with that,” Kenny LeBarón, a relative, told the New York Times.
A video of the crime scene, posted to Facebook by another man related to the victims, shows a small fire burning inside a charred vehicle.
In response to the massacre, the Los Angeles Times reports that many of the victims’ family members are leaving Mexico for Arizona with no plans to ever return.
The victims were part of Mormon community that has a history of speaking out against cartel violence.
Per the Guardian, the victims came from two fundamentalist Mormon hamlets in northern Mexico, located near the Arizona border: La Mora and Colonia LeBaron. (While members of the community call themselves Mormon, they are not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Per Reuters, the community was formed last century by Mormons who were “outcast” over their polygamist beliefs.)
In 2009, the community made headlines after a local drug cartel kidnapped a 16-year-old member of the LeBaron family and held him for a $1 million ransom, which the community refused to pay. In response to the kidnapping, the fundamentalist group pressured the government to intervene, and the cartel eventually returned the boy. After the fact, the LeBarons, concerned for their safety, armed themselves, which is a violation of Mexican law. Ever since, the family has spoken out about the need for looser gun laws.
The motive for the killings has not yet been determined.
A motive for the murders has not yet been determined, and there are two competing theories. While Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has stressed that officials are still collecting information, members of his administration have speculated that the family was killed after one drug cartel mistook it for a rival gang. According to the Los Angeles Times, the scene of the murder is located in a region disputed by two criminal gangs: the Sinaloa cartel and La Linea, which is associated with the Juarez cartel.
But relatives of the victims believe the gunmen knew exactly who they were killing. The Mormon community has a history of speaking out against drug-related violence in Mexico, so they aren’t buying officials’ line.
“This was no crossfire,” Alex LeBaron, a relative of the victims and member of the Chihuahua state legislature, said on Mexico’s W Radio. “It couldn’t have been a mistake. This is terrorism, plain and simple.” In an interview with CNN, Kendra Lee Miller, another family member, echoed this belief, claiming that cartels had recently threatened her family over where it was permitted to travel in the region.
Jorge Castañeda, the former foreign minister of Mexico has also given credence to this theory. “They had stood up to the drug cartels and they did have certain frictions either with the cartels or with neighboring communities over water rights,” he said, per CNN.
An unspecified number of arrests have been made in connection with the massacre.
On early November 6, Mexican officials announced that an unidentified suspect has been arrested in connection with the massacre. According to CNN, the suspect was found in a town bordering Arizona. He was found with two bound and gagged victims he had taken hostage, as well as multiple assault rifles and vehicles.
In the days since, Mexico has arrested others, though the exact number has not been released. “There have been arrests, but it’s not up to us to give information,” Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said on November 11.
The FBI has joined the investigation
Upon the request of Mexico’s foreign ministry, the FBI announced in a statement on November 10 that they would be aiding in the investigation, CNN reports.
“The FBI will be providing assistance at the invitation of the Mexican government with the investigation into the recent attack against American citizens,” reads the statement. “The FBI remains committed to working alongside our international partners to help bring justice to the perpetrators of this heinous act of violence.”
This post has been updated.