MEXICO CITY—Gunmen in Mexico ambushed a convoy of SUVs carrying U.S. citizens, killing three women and six children and then setting them alight in an incident that led U.S. President
to call for a war on Mexican drug cartels.
The victims, from a community in northwestern Mexico formed by members of a breakaway group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were traveling between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua when they were attacked Monday by unknown gunmen, Mexican officials said.
“This is a regrettable situation,” Mexican President
Andrés Manuel López Obrador
said during his morning news conference Tuesday. He promised that his government would do everything possible to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
The convoy might have been confused by gunmen from one organized crime group that is disputing the area with a rival group, Mexico’s security minister,
President Trump said Tuesday that the U.S. is ready and willing to help Mexico take on the drug cartels if the country needs or requests assistance.
“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,” he tweeted. He added that “the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!”
President López Obrador rejected the offer of military help Tuesday. “I think we don’t need intervention,” he said.
Since taking office last December, the leftist president declared Mexico’s drug war over, saying he would focus on alleviating poverty that drives young men to join gangs rather than attacking the cartels themselves. He called the strategy “hugs, not bullets.”
But Mexico’s murder rate has hit record highs this year, and a string of recent massacres has called into question the president’s strategy.
Monday’s incident comes just two weeks after the Sinaloa cartel laid siege to the city of Culiacán after the military had arrested a son of jailed drug lord
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.
The coordinated attacks across the city forced the government to release the son in an embarrassing setback.
“Mr. Lopez Obrador’s strategy is clearly not working,” said
María Elena Morera,
the head of Causa en Comun, an anticrime advocacy group. “He can’t keep thinking that a government using legitimate force against criminals is what generates violence.”
During the past five years, the surge in trafficking of methamphetamine and synthetic opioids—which have increasingly taken the place of marijuana, cocaine and heroin—has led to increasing violence in the borderlands of Sonora and Chihuahua states, according to
a security analyst with consultancy Empra in Mexico City.
Drug routes between the coastal city of Guaymas, in southern Sonora, and Sonoyta, in northern Sonora and across the border from Arizona, are controlled by the Los Salazar family, an affiliate of the Sinaloa cartel, Mr. Wilkinson said. These trafficking routes pass close to Latter-day Saints settlements.
Turf wars have escalated in the past two years between Los Salazar and the armed wing of the Juárez cartel, known as La Linea, which controls much of Chihuahua state. Police killings in Sonora doubled between 2018 and 2019 to about 20 this year, the result of cartel-related violence, according to Empra.
The latest killing Monday is likely to complicate the relationship with the U.S. Unlike other recent killings in Mexico, this time the victims are dual U.S. citizens and most are children, multiplying the impact on public opinion, said
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an analyst at the University of Guadalajara.
“This will raise the temperature among conservative sectors in the U.S. precisely during election season,” Mr. Chabat said. “We can expect some difficult months ahead in terms of relations with the U.S.”
In response to the latest incident,
Sen. Ben Sasse
(R., Neb.), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Mexico is dangerously close to being a failed state. “Mexico’s president hasn’t taken the threat seriously and innocent lives have been lost again.” He said that Mexico must partner with the U.S. on a “full-scale offensive against these butchers.”
Mr. López Obrador said Tuesday he wouldn’t change his government’s strategy, saying the war on Mexico’s powerful drug cartels carried out by the previous two governments with U.S. help was a failed policy. “They declared war and it didn’t work,” he said.
The victims of Monday’s massacre were members of a tightly knit faction of the Latter-day Saints community that came to Mexico in the late 1800s, after the church renounced polygamy in the U.S. They also appeared to be members of a large, extended family.
Several relatives of those involved in the massacre used social media to describe Monday’s events.
who said she is a relative of the victims, said three vehicles with three women and 14 children set out Monday morning from La Mora, a small village in the municipality of Bavispe in northeastern Sonora. Two of the women were going to see family in neighboring Chihuahua, while the third one was heading to Phoenix, Ariz., to pick up her husband, Ms. Miller wrote on Facebook.
“The first vehicle was found full of bullet holes and completely ablaze,” Ms. Miller wrote. Rhonita Maria Miller and four of her children were burned to mostly ashes and only a few charred bones were left to identify that all five had been inside, she wrote.
Ms. Miller couldn’t be immediately reached for comment, but another family member,
told The Wall Street Journal that Ms. Miller is the sister of Rhonita Maria Miller’s husband Howard.
About 10 miles ahead of Rhonita Miller’s car were
Christina Marie Langford,
with her baby, Faith, in her vehicle, and
Dawna Ray Langford
and her children in another vehicle. “They both were fired upon from ahead and Christina jumped out waving her arms to let the attackers know that it was women and children in the vehicles. She gave her life to try and save the rest. Dawna and two of her boys were also killed in the gunfire,” Ms. Miller wrote.
Dawna’s son Devin hid his six other siblings in the bushes and covered them with branches to keep them safe while he went for help, according to Ms. Miller’s account. Devin arrived in La Mora at around 5:30 p.m., giving the first news to local authorities.
Christina’s baby, seven-month-old Faith, was found alive in her car seat, which had apparently been put on the floor by her mother to try to protect her, wrote Jhon LeBaron, a cousin of one of the victims.
“Several of the kids were shot, one of them was shot in the face and they are trying to get him to the hospital as fast as they can,” wrote Mr. LeBaron.
He added: “My heart is completely broken. This feels like a bad dream I want to wake up from.”
Monday’s killing is at least the fifth massacre of civilians under the presidency of Mr. López Obrador. In April, 14 people were killed at a family party in Minatitlán, in the state of Veracruz, while 26 were shot dead at a bar in Coatzacoalcos in August, also in Veracruz. On Oct. 14, 13 policemen were ambushed and killed by gunmen in the western state of Michoacán. Hours later, 15 died in Iguala, in the southern state of Guerrero, in a confrontation with the Mexican army.
—Robbie Whelan in Mexico City and Rebecca Ballhaus in Washington contributed to this article.
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