Criminal investigators in northern Mexico say a suspect has been arrested and is under investigation for possible connections with the deaths of nine U.S. citizens — three women and six children — killed Monday when cartel gunmen ambushed their vehicles.
In a statement on Facebook, the Agency for Criminal Investigation for the state of Sonora said Tuesday the accused was found in the town of Agua Prieta, at the border with Arizona, holding two hostages who were gagged and tied inside a vehicle.
The suspect, whose gender was not specified, was also found with four assault rifles and ammunition, and various large vehicles, including a bullet-proofed SUV.
Officials have said the gunmen may have mistaken the group’s large SUVs for those of a rival gang amid a vicious turf war. Eight children, some just infants, survived the ambush
The children, some mere infants, not only escaped the drug cartel gunmen who killed their mothers, but managed to hide in the brush, with some walking long ways to get help despite grisly bullet wounds.
One woman reportedly stashed her baby on the floor of her Suburban and got out of the vehicle, waving her arms to show the gunmen she wasn’t a threat. She may have moved away from the vehicle to distract their attention; her bullet-ridden body was found about 13 metres from the SUV. Mexican officials said the gunmen may have mistaken the group’s large vehicle for those of a rival gang amid a vicious turf war.
The five seriously wounded children were flown by Mexican authorities to the border in a military helicopter, to receive hospital care in the U.S. Sonora state health officials said they were “stable” at the moment of transfer. Three other children who were not wounded were in the care of family members in the tiny hamlet of La Mora in northern Mexico.
Brother hid siblings in bushes
But what the children went through in the remote, mountainous area of Sonora state is nearly indescribable.
Kendra Miller, a relative, said in an account of the shootings that Devin Blake Langford, 13, was one of the few uninjured young people and quickly took charge, eventually walking about 22.5 kilometres back to La Mora for help.
“After witnessing his mother and brothers being shot dead, 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 the account. “When he took too long to return, his nine-year-old sister left the remaining five to try again.”
That girl, Mckenzie Rayne Langford, walked for hours in the dark before she was found several hours after the other children were rescued. She was listed as missing for a while.
The children were on their own from about 1 p.m. local time, when the ambush began, until about 7:30 p.m., when they were rescued. Relatives from La Mora tried to reach them before that, but were turned back by gunfire. The area is the site of a cartel turf war.
In recordings of calls between the rescuers, they can be heard debating whether it was better to risk more lives or wait an hour or two until Mexican army troops arrived. It was an agonizing decision.
What authorities saw when they found the children was terrifying.
Cody Greyson Langford, 8, had been shot in the jaw and bled profusely. Another girl had been shot in the foot and the back.
The killers were apparently members of the Juarez drug cartel and its armed wing, La Linea — The Line — whose gunmen had entered Sinaloa cartel territory, and set up an armed outpost on a hilltop and an ambush further up the road. The cartel apparently wanted to send a message it controlled the road into Chihuahua. It was this invasion force that the American mothers and their three vehicles drove into.
It was only after the first vehicle was shot up and set afire that 50 or 60 Sinaloa cartel gunmen showed up to see what had happened.
‘This sort of thing shouldn’t go unnoticed’
But it’s not the cruelty of the cartel, but the bravery, innocence and sacrifice of the victims that relatives want remembered.
Austin Cloes, a relative of the victims, said from his home in Salt Lake City that they were good people who loved their children and enjoyed their quiet lives based around a successful pecan farming operation.
“This sort of thing shouldn’t go unnoticed,” said Cloes, who works with at-risk youth and coaches high school basketball. “And these sorts of people shouldn’t just be buried without their names being put out there. These are great people.”
The dead in the attacks included a mother, her eight-month-old twins, and her 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. Another mother lay dead in the front seat of another Suburban, along with the bullet-riddled bodies of her sons, ages 11 and 2.
The victims lived in Sonora state, about 110 kilometres south of Douglas, Ariz., in the hamlet of La Mora, which was founded decades ago by an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. La Mora residents tend to call themselves Mormons, but are not affiliated with any church.
A number of such American farming communities are clustered around the Chihuahua-Sonora state border. Members include those born in Mexico who have dual citizenship.
All the victims were apparently related to the extended LeBaron family in Chihuahua, whose members have run afoul of drug traffickers over the years. Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who founded neighborhood patrols against cartels, was killed in 2009.
The victims had set out to visit relatives in Chihuahua. One woman was headed to the airport in Phoenix to meet her husband.
While a drug-related violence has been raging for years in Mexico, the attack underscored the way cartel gunmen have become increasingly unconcerned about killing children as collateral damage:
- In August in Chihuahua state, cartel gunmen fired 123 bullets at a man and also killed three girls ages 4, 13 and 14.
- In June, a young boy was killed along with his father in Sonora state.
- In July, a 10-year-old was killed during a robbery in Puebla state.