Early Monday morning, along a remote dirt road that links the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, a group of men ambushed a convoy of three vehicles driven by three young mothers traveling with their 14 children. Even in the context of Mexico’s habitually grim crime news, the details of what happened are shocking. According to a straightforward and affecting statement by Julián LeBaron, leader of the Mormon community in northeastern Chihuahua that the victims called home, two of the women were on their way to visit family while another one was heading to pick up her husband from the Phoenix airport. “They never made it,” LeBaron wrote. The women and children were “shot, burned and murdered in cold blood.”
Rhonita Maria Miller was killed and incinerated inside her car, along with four of her children, including Titus and Tiana, her 8-month-old twins. Christina Marie Langford apparently stepped out of her car and, according to LeBaron’s account, “waved her arms to let her attackers know that there were women and children inside the vehicles.” They shot her anyway. Dawna Ray Langford was also murdered, next to two of her boys. Five other children were wounded in the attack. After the assault, 13-year old Devin Blake Langford hid wounded children behind bushes by the side of the road and walked over 14 miles back to La Mora, the Sonoran community from where they had departed, to get help.
When family members finally reached the scene, they found a hellish sight. They took pictures. (The LeBaron family sent me these photographs, which I have seen and will describe, but will not share in this story due to their graphic nature.) One shows a child shot, sunken like a small bundle on the floor of one of the cars, his left arm softly hugging the back seat. In another one, a woman slumps against the driver’s seat, broken glass strewn around her, the screen of her SUV still shining. LeBaron also posted video of one of the vehicles, burnt beyond recognition. “There were just a few charred bones left,” he later wrote. In the middle of the carnage, the men found a miracle: a baby girl, unharmed, still strapped into the car seat where her mother had left her. Her name is Faith.
This is not the first time that the LeBaron community, a peaceful and hardworking group that has lived in northeastern Chihuahua for a century and is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been the victim of violence. Ten years ago, criminals abducted 16-year-old Eric LeBaron and demanded $1 million for his release. In an act of remarkable audacity the family, led by Julián and his brother, Benjamín, chose not to pay the ransom and instead organized a series of boisterous protests. Surprisingly, their resistance paid off: Eric was freed within a week. After the ordeal, Benjamín LeBaron became an outspoken community leader against organized crime in the region. But violence had the last word. Two months after Eric’s release, local gangs sought retribution. A group of armed men stormed Benjamín’s house and took both Benjamín and his brother-in-law, Luis Widmar. They were found shot soon afterward.
After the murders, Julián LeBaron picked up his brother’s activist mantle. Despite the tragic outcome of his family’s decision, he stood by his belief of not giving in to lawless blackmail. When I interviewed him in late 2010, LeBaron told me Mexican authorities had betrayed Benjamín’s trust, conspiring with local criminals against the family’s resistance. “They died like martyrs,” he told me. In 2011, he joined poet Javier Sicilia, whose own son had been brutally killed in southern Mexico, on a weekslong march for peace. The group eventually met with President Felipe Calderón for a historic—if mostly ineffective—series of public conversations about the Mexican government’s strategy against the country’s criminal organizations.
That such horrific violence has once again struck the LeBaron community speaks to the Mexican government’s inability to defend even its most obviously vulnerable citizens. A decade ago, Julián LeBaron told me that those who killed his brother still roamed the streets. “Some of them still threaten us,” he said. Indeed, the men responsible for Benjamín’s brutal execution were never caught.
This time around, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador faces unprecedented pressure to find the culprits—and not just from an outraged Mexican society. In Washington, Republican lawmakers have condemned López Obrador’s flawed security strategy (Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton called it “a fairy tale”). President Donald Trump himself took to Twitter to offer Mexico military help. (The victims were all dual U.S.-Mexican citizens.) Alex LeBaron, another eloquent spokesman of the aggrieved community, soon replied. “Want to help? Focus on lowering Drug Consumption in United States,” he tweeted. “Want to help some more? Stop the ATF and Gun Law loopholes from systematically injecting high powered assault weapons to Mexico.” Trump didn’t respond to LeBaron, and López Obrador declined Trump’s offer. “It is up to us to fix this,” Mexico’s president said.
It won’t be easy. Criminal organizations have grown increasingly aggressive. López Obrador himself has been under severe scrutiny after his controversial decision to free Ovidio Guzmán López, leader of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel and son of imprisoned kingpin Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán, following a botched government operation to arrest and extract the younger Guzmán.
Julián LeBaron immediately rejected the government’s first absurd theory of what happened: a case of mistaken identity. “They did not confuse them with anyone else,” he said in an interview. “They brutally killed women and children.” As of now, there are no further leads.
For LeBaron and his community, the tragedy along the Sonoran back roads is the product of years of neglect. The vast, mostly deserted area between Sonora and Chihuahua has long been a battleground for the local cartels, who use it to reach the lucrative Arizona market. That criminals opened fire on a group of women and children seems to be a natural, horrendous progression of both cruelty and lawlessness. Ten years ago, just a few months after his brother’s death, I asked LeBaron about the future. He was optimistic, he told me. Mexico had everything going for it. But there was a caveat. “There cannot be peace without justice,” he told me. LeBaron was right then, and he is right now.
Update, Nov. 8, 2019: This post has been updated to clarify that this community is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.