At least three American mothers and six children from a Mormon family were killed in a shooting in the Mexican border state of Sonora on Monday in an attack blamed on drug cartel gunmen.
Seventeen family members from the LeBaron and Langford families were ‘ambushed’ eight miles apart while heading to celebrate a wedding anniversary in three cars from La Mora – a decades-old settlement founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In horrific scenes, gunmen opened fire on one child running away before torching a car as family members burnt to death while trapped inside. Other young children managed to escape and hid by the roadside while a mother was shot in the chest as she put her hands up to surrender.
Relatives fear some of the victims may have been raped.
A relative said a boy concealed his wounded siblings – some less than a year old – in bushes before he ran back to the nearby town to get help after his mother was gunned down.
One of the woman shot dead was Christina Langford, 29, who saved her seven-month-old baby’s life by throwing her to the floor of their SUV as bullets tore through the vehicle.
The motive for the attack is not yet clear, although it is possible it was an attempted kidnapping. A family member reported receiving a phone call hearing screams before a killer executed them.
The religious group has had previous run-ins with organized crime cartel in the area, including one member being killed. However one family member they believe it was mistaken identity.
In last night’s massacre, Rhonita Maria LeBaron was traveling to Phoenix when her car broke down, according to relatives.
Gunmen opened fire and torched her vehicle causing the gas tank to explode where she died along with her twin six-month-old babies, Titus and Tiana and two more of her children Krystal, 10, and Howard, 12.
Eight miles ahead, Christina Langford Johnson, 29 , Dawna Ray Langford, 43, and two of Dawna’s children, Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 3, were also killed in other SUVs. Other family members are still unaccounted for.
Christina’s seven-month-old baby Faith was found alive on the floor in the backseat and seven of Dawna’s children escaped with bullet holes riddled throughout their bodies, according to relatives.
One of the mothers is said to have got out her car during the siege and put her hands up to surrender before attackers ‘shot her point blank in the chest’.
A video posted by a relative on social media shows the charred remains of the Chevy Suburban. It had been burned following an explosion and was smoldering, with bullet holes visible in the paneling.
Meanwhile worried relatives posted on social media that they feared many had been kidnapped and raped. Trish Cloes wrote: ‘These women were possibly brutally raped. Please keep them in your prayers.’
Kenny LeBarón, a cousin of the women driving the vehicles, told the New York Times: ‘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.’
The government deployed the army to fight drug trafficking in 2006, but experts blame the so-called ‘drug war’ for the spiraling violence between fragmented cartels and the military, which has lead to more than 250,000 murders.
‘It was a massacre,’ said Julian Lebaron, a relative and activist who has denounced criminal groups in the area, told Formula Radio.
His brother, Benjamin Lebaron, founder of a crime-fighting group called SOS Chihuahua, was assassinated in 2009.
When asked who might be responsible, Lebaron said the attack took place in a ‘war zone’, home to drug cartels and ‘thugs’.
His family ‘may have been caught in crossfire or targeted by mistake, we don’t know the cause,’ he said, but added that the Mormon community had recently been the target of threats.
The community are descendants of Mormons who fled the US in the nineteenth century after being persecuted for their traditions, including polygamy.
One former member is George Romney, father of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who was born in 1907 in Colonia Dublan in Chihuahua state, according to an NBC report Monday.
The families lived in La Mora about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona, and also lived in North Dakota. Many of the church’s members were born in Mexico and thus have dual citizenship.
Relatives took to social media said to praise Christina Langford’s heoric actions after she reportedly saved her seven-month-old daughter Faith from being shot.
Relative Jasmin Soulsby wrote: ‘Christina Langford was killed, but her baby girl Faith, who they thought was dead, was miraculously found alive on the floor of her suburban.
‘She has been there all day alone.’
Family member Keisha Johnson posted a photo on Facebook of her cradling Faith, writing: ‘This sweet baby girl was found alive! Her momma saved her life! She is an angel!’
Another relative, Alissa Jones, wrote: ‘CHRISTINA’S BABY FAITH WAS FOUND ALIVE!!! The rescuers made it to the vehicle.
‘She was found thrown on the floor. She seems to not have any immediate life threatening injuries.’
One relative said that seven of his aunt’s children had been left abandoned alive by attackers on a roadside. Family members on social media said one boy helped hid his siblings before running for help.
‘My aunt Dawna’s son Devon hid some of his shot and wounded siblings in the bushes and ran all the way back to town for help,’ John wrote.
Lafe Langford Jr, a relative of the victims, said medics from the Mexican state of Senora reportedly rushed to help, but doctors would prefer to fly them to the US.
She added in a later post: ‘Dawna’s children escaped with bullet holes in several places on their bodies. The children managed to get help under horrible circumstances.
‘The children managed to escape with their baby brother. Baby was harmed with a bullet across his chest and through his arm. ( just got an update) This is a courage act of these innocent children.’
Family member Ruthila E LeBaron posted a photo of her sister and her children, Howard Jacob, 12, and Krystal, 10, were also killed. She said: ‘My beautiful sister and her sweet babies’.
Meanwhile Lafe LeBaron described the horrifying scene as his relatives were shot dead or scrambled to safety from the attackers.
He wrote on Facebook: ‘It is with heavy hearts and unspeakable sadness we inform you that the 2 missing Mothers Christina Langford and Dawna Langford along with many of their precious INNOCENT children have been slaughtered and gone to their Rest.
‘We’ve had no help from the powers and authorities that be as of yet ….one of the older boys escaped with six of his siblings and he was able to run home to La Mora Municipio Bavispe Sonora Mexico after leaving his wounded, bleeding, and bullet ridden brothers and sisters hiding behind trees from the ongoing shootout between the cartels.
‘Teenagers and adults have been scrambling into the mountains to find our loved ones risking their very own lives…. while help is nowhere to be found.’
‘Rhonita Miller and her 4 children were shot up and burned to death in this vehicle and at this very moment there are TWO more suburbans with 2 of our families totaling 2 wives and 10 children that are missing and/or kidnapped by the cartel….. We need help immediately!!…’
Authorities in Sonora state and the U.S. Embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The federal Department of Security and Citizens’ Protection said security forces were reinforced with National Guard, army and state police troops in the area following ‘the reports about disappearance and aggression against several people.’
The U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau said in a tweet in Spanish that ‘the safety of our fellow citizens is our top priority. I am closely following the situation in the mountains between Sonora and Chihuahua.’
Claudia Pavlovich Arellano, the governor of Sonora, said on Twitter late Monday that ‘as a mother,’ she was filled with deep pain by ‘the cowardly acts in the mountains’.
‘I don’t know what kind of monsters dare to hurt women and children,’ she added.
Senator for Sonora, Lilly Téllez, wrote on Twitter ‘the massacre in Sonora cannot go unpunished.’
Manuel Añorve Baños, another Mexican senator described the incident ‘a despicable, merciless and savage act’ in a tweet, adding: ‘We demand justice.’
It would not be the first time that members of the break-away church had been attacked in northern Mexico, where their forebears settled – often in Chihuahua state – decades ago.
The colony was founded by Alma Dayer LeBaron who moved to Mexico as a breakaway from the Mormon church in 1924 after being excommunicated from the church for practicing polygamy.
When Alma died in 1951, he passed the leadership of the community on to his son Joel LeBaron, whose younger brother Ervil LeBaron, was his second in command.
When the brother’s split, Ervil had Joel killed and in 1974, was tried and convicted in Mexico for Joel’s murder.
In 2009, Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who was related to those killed in Monday’s attack, was murdered in 2009 in neighboring Chihuahua state.
Pics: Xander,4, Kylie, 14 and Cody, 7 managed to survive.