At least six children and three women, all Americans with ties to Utah, were killed in a daylight ambush in Northern Mexico on Monday, likely by cartel gunmen. The family reports that more than a dozen family members are still missing following the attack on the caravan of three SUVs, believed to have been kidnapped following the massacre.
The victims were all part of the LeBaron family and lived in La Mora, a Mormon fundamentalist community established decades-ago in Mexico’s Sonora state as an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of the children had been born in Mexico and thus were dual citizens.
Among those killed was mother Rhonita Maria Miller and her four children, which included two eight-month old babies, Titus and Tiana Miller; ten-year old Krystal Miller; and twelve-year old Howard Miller. According to relatives, two other women, Dawna Ray Langford and Christina Marie Langford Johnson, also mothers, were found dead in another location, while two-year old Rogan Langford and eleven-year old Trevor Langford were also reported dead.
While early reports have surmised that the cold-blooded murders were carried out by Mexican drug cartels in a tragic case of mistaken identity, the record suggests it’s possible that a local drug cartel was targeting the family. A decade ago, two members of the LeBaron family who were known anti-crime activists were shot and killed by a cartel.
The first relative to arrive to the scene reported seeing dozens of gunmen surrounding the vehicles and attributed the indiscriminate slaughter to cartel violence. The family was en route to a wedding in Chihuahua when they were ambushed by gunmen.
President Trump took to Twitter to pay his respects to the family and share outrage at the ubiquity of cartel violence, which the Democrats have frequently assured Americans is not a reality.
….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
The Federalist’s political editor, John Davidson, has reported extensively on the violence surging in areas below the Rio Grande. In a recent piece titled “A Drug Cartel Just Defeated the Mexican Military In Battle,” Davidson warns of the horrifying military capacity of the Mexican drug cartels, which the Mexican government seems unable or unwilling to stop.
Two weeks ago, Davidson offered a stark assessment of the Mexican state’s devolution into effective anarchy as he discussed a recent battle in Culiacan between the Sinaloa cartel and the Mexican military, a battle which the drug cartels shockingly won—a fact perhaps less shocking for those paying attention to the collapse of Mexico. In Culiacan, hundreds of cartel gunmen descended on the city of one million, blocking roads with burning vehicles, driving around with machine guns mounted on their vehicles, and launching attacks on military posts throughout the city.
Understand that the fighting in Culiacan is not just another episode in the “drug war,” nor is it merely an incident of organized crime. What’s happening Mexico right now is more like an insurgency. Yes, drug-trafficking is one of the things the cartels do, but it doesn’t nearly describe what they are or what role they’re playing in the disintegration of civil society in Mexico. Indeed, over the past decade cartels have diversified their economic activities to include everything from oil and gas production to industrial agriculture to offshore commercial fishing.
As Davidson writes, “Mexico is now on a trajectory to become a vast gangland governed more by warlordism than by the state.” Prior to the battle in Culiacan, fourteen police officers were recently slaughtered in a cartel ambush in western Mexico, and after that a dozen suspected gunmen turned up dead. Indeed, Mexico’s homicide rate in 2019 is on pace to surpass last year’s record of nearly 30,000.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is blamed for the growing power and impunity of the drug cartels, to which he has taken a non-confrontational approach. Lopez Obrador has emphasized anti-poverty programs as a means to reducing cartel membership, but many, including security expert Edgardo Buscaglia of Columbia University, point out that many states poorer than Mexico have lower crime rates, so poverty alone cannot be to blame for the unfolding turmoil in Mexico.
Buscaglia emphasizes that the cartels do not represent a collection of individual criminals but rather, the emergence of a “parallel state.” “What López Obrador needs is not a security strategy,” Buscaglia says. “What he needs is an anti-mafia strategy.” Others have suggested the violence necessitates that Obrador take up a military strategy to combat the now-operationalized cartels.
Regardless, the latest slaughter is a reminder of the unmitigated chaos that lies just below the Arizona border. The LeBaron’s Mormon community is only seventy miles south of Douglas, Arizona. When it comes to containing cartel violence, it is not merely a domestic issue for the state of Mexico but rather, an issue that likely will demand a response from the United States, particularly as the threat of spillover violence becomes more likely. The only question is when.
Erielle Davidson is a Staff Writer at the Federalist and a law student at Georgetown University Law Center. Find her on Twitter at @politicalelle.