MEXICO CITY (AFP) — At least three women and six children from an American Mormon community in northern Mexico have been killed in an ambush in an area notorious for drug traffickers and bandits, a relative said.
The government deployed the army to fight drug trafficking in 2006, but experts blame the drug war for the spiraling violence between fragmented cartels and the military, which has led to more than 250,000 murders.
Julian Lebaron said his cousin was traveling with her four children to an airport when she was attacked and shot in Rancho de la Mora, near the U.S. border.
"It was a massacre," Lebaron, an activist who has denounced criminal groups in the area, told Formula Radio.
His cousin's van was set on fire with the victims inside, he said.
Two other vehicles were found several hours later, containing the bodies of two women and a boy and a girl about 10 years old.
At least five other children — one of whom was shot and wounded — managed to escape and walk home, and a girl was reported missing after having run into the woods to hide, Lebaron said.
The Chihuahua state prosecutor, Cesar Augusto Peniche, said the number of victims remains "confused."
The attack took place near the border of Chihuahua and Sonora states. Communication with the area, which is mountainous and forested, is difficult, Peniche said.
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 said that the Mormon community had recently been the target of threats.
Virtually every element of Mexican police and military forces have been involved in drug trafficking, which led the late U.S. journalist Charles Bowden to call the “drug war” a war for drugs.
Members of the community are descendants of Mormons who fled the United States 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 Dublán in Chihuahua state, according to an NBC report Monday.
Many Mormons in Mexico enjoy dual Mexican and U.S. citizenship and, according to Mexican media, the Lebaron family asked for help from the U.S. Embassy.
It is not the first time the family has been targeted. Lebaron's sibling, Benjamin, founder of a crime-fighting group called SOS Chihuahua, was assassinated in 2009 after he led protests over the kidnapping of their 16-year-old brother.
The Mormons refused to pay the ransom and the young Lebaron was eventually released.
© Agence France-Presse
(Courthouse News contributed to this report.)
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.