LA MORA, Mexico (AP) — Under a strong security presence, the remote farming community of La Mora, Mexico prepared to hold the first funerals Thursday for some of the nine American women and children killed by drug cartel gunmen.
Dozens of high-riding pickups and SUVS, many with U.S. license plates from as far away as North Dakota, bumped across dirt and rock roads over desert, arid grasslands and pine-covered mountains Wednesday as night fell on this community of about 300 people. Many of the residents are dual U.S. and Mexican citizens who consider themselves Mormon but are not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At least 1,000 visitors were expected to bunk down in the hamlet overnight before the Thursday funerals, filling floor space in the 30 or so homes or sleeping in tents they brought with them. At least one cow was slaughtered to help feed the masses, and the few dozen Mexican soldiers guarding the entrance to La Mora.
Steven Langford, who was mayor of La Mora from 2015 to 2018, said he expected the killings to have a "major" impact on the community. Once upon a time he said he didn't think about moving around the area in the middle of night, but in the past 10 to 15 years things "got worse and worse and worse." As many as half of the residents could move away, he feared.
"It was a massacre, 100% a massacre," said Langford, whose sister Christina Langford was one of the women killed. "I don't know how it squares with the conscience of someone to do something so horrible."
When gunmen opened fire on them Monday, the Mexican army, the National Guard and Sonora state police were not there to protect them. It took them about eight hours to arrive.
To many, the bloodshed demonstrated once more that the government has lost control over vast areas of Mexico to drug traffickers.
"The country is suffering very much from violence," said William Stubbs, a pecan and alfalfa farmer who serves on a community security committee in the American-dominated hamlet of Colonia LeBaron. "You see it all over. And it ain't getting better. It's getting worse."
Lack of law enforcement in rural areas such as the northern states of Chihuahua and Sonora once led the dual U.S.-Mexican residents of places such as Colonia LeBaron to form their own civilian defense patrols.
Stubbs said that after the 2009 killing of anti-crime activist Benjamin LeBaron, residents positioned themselves each night for two years with high-powered binoculars to keep watch from the large "L'' for "LeBaron" that stands on a hillside above the town.
Since then, he said, the cartels have left Le Baron and the town of Galeana a few kilometers to the north alone. But he said they have watched the cartels get stronger for two decades, with nearby communities in the mountains suffering from violence and extortion.
This week, he said, the military told him that the town of Zaragoza had been about 50% abandoned.
The army's chief of staff, Gen. Homero Mendoza, said Wednesday that the attack that killed three American mothers and six of their children started at 9:40 a.m. Monday, when the nearest army units were in the border city of Agua Prieta, about 100 miles and 3½ hours away.