Mexican authorities say they are homing in on a criminal group known as “La Linea” as those responsible for the massacre of an American family.
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The family was traveling in a small convoy of three vehicles between the northern Mexican border states of Sonora and Chihuahua when they were ambushed by an armed group on Monday, according to Mexico’s security minister, Alfonso Durazo.
The area where the attack took place — less than 100 miles from the Arizona border — is of territorial dispute by several criminal groups, and it’s possible the family’s convoy was mistaken for one of a rival group, Durazo told reporters Tuesday.
Three women and six children were killed in the ambush, Durazo said. Eight other children survived the massacre, though many were injured.
Julian LeBaron, a relative who lives in Chihuahua state, spoke to ABC News Wednesday evening and said he believes the attack was intentional.
“What kind of men can even call themselves men that murder women and children? And we believe that they did it intentionally,” he said. “They had to have known that it was women and children because they fired from the hilltop where they could see that the car broke down. They could see women, women and children, getting in and out of the car.”
La Linea has strong control in Chihuahua state and has been in a fight with elements from another criminal group called “Los Salazar,” which is aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, who have more control in Sonora state, according to Mexican Army Gen. Homero Mendoza.
Investigators assume La Linea are responsible for the ambush, Mendoza told reporters at a press conference Wednesday.
The two groups had been battling on the day of the attack, and La Linea had sent a criminal cell between the towns of Janos and Bavispe, along the border between the two states, to avoid or limit an incursion by Los Salazar onto their turf in Chihuahua, Mendoza said.
LeBaron took issue with Mexican authorities categorizing the family as being caught in the crossfire, saying the government has “manipulated” the facts.
“The federal government came out and said they were caught in the crossfire and there was no crossfire,” LeBaron told ABC News. “They intentionally aimed and fired on women and children.”
The two groups engaged in a gunfight around 3: 15 p.m. Tuesday — after the ambush — and authorities found a safe house and a burned vehicle, Mendoza said. Around 6: 10 p.m., a dead man was found outside a funeral home, and another man injured by gunshot had arrived at a hospital in the city.
“This was a targeted attack and the cartel knew there were women and children in those vehicles,” David Langford, whose wife Dawna Ray Langford died in the attack, told ABC News.”The cartel waged violence against our community using our families as pawns. My wife was shot and killed.”
The family members killed were U.S. citizens but lived in a small Mormon community, called “La Mora,” nestled in the mountains of northeastern Sonora near the state limits with Chihuahua, according to another relative, Leah Staddon, who was born and raised in the same community but now lives in Arizona. She said her family, although American, has lived in Mexico for decades and they are all dual citizens.
On the morning of the attack, the family members left their settlement to drive to a wedding in Chihuahua, according to Staddon
The La Mora community, located in the town of Bavispe, is difficult to access, and the family was on a route they often use to run errands, according to LeBaron.
The trip toward Janos would typically take about 2 hours and 20 minutes along the dirt road, Mendoza said. Four cars had initially been in the convoy, but one got a flat tire, which is why there were so many passengers between the three vehicles, Mendoza said.
The first attack occurred around 9: 40 a.m., and the second assault around 11 a.m., Mendoza said. Both were ahead of the vehicle that was later found burned.
One of the vehicles they were traveling in, a Chevrolet Tahoe, was found burned with five charred bodies inside about a mile from the village of San Miguelito in Sonora, according to Claudia Indira Contreras Cordova, the attorney general for Sonora.
A white Chevrolet Suburban was located some 11 miles away with one woman and two children, who had been shot to death, Cordova told ABC News.
The third vehicle, also a white Chevrolet Suburban, was discovered about a mile away from the border between Sonora and Chihuahua. A woman was found shot dead some 50 feet away from the car, Cordova said.
Approximately 200 shell casings of .223- and 77 mm-caliber guns were found at the scenes, according to Cordova.
LeBaron said he went to the scene with authorities to help collect the bodies of the dead and look for the ones who survived. He told ABC News that the deceased victims are Rhonita Maria Miller, 30; Howard Jacob Miller Jr., 12; Krystal Bellaine Miller, 10; Titus Alvin Miller, 10; 8-month-old twins Titus Alvin Miller and Tiana Gricel Miller; Dawna Ray Langford, 43; Trevor Harvey Langford, 11; Rogan Jay Langford, 2; and Christina Marie Langford Johnson, 29.
Rhonita Maria Miller, who was driving the Chevrolet Tahoe with her children in tow, was going to pick up her husband in the United States before heading to the wedding, according to LeBaron.
While there have been discrepancies from authorities on the number of passengers in each Suburban, LeBaron told ABC News that 13-year-old Devin Blake Langford was in the first one and survived the attack, along with six of his siblings. The boy, who was unharmed, hid his wounded brothers and sisters in the bushes, covering them with branches, and then walked about 14 miles back to La Mora to get help, according to LeBaron.
Meanwhile, 7-month-old Faith Marie Johnson was found alive and unharmed in her car seat in the second Suburban, LeBaron said.
Five of the eight surviving children were transferred to a hospital in Arizona for treatment, with the help of the Mexican military, according to LeBaron.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State confirmed the deaths of the nine Americans and the injuries of five others to ABC News, stating that it condemns “this horrific act of violence.”
“We are closely monitoring local Mexican authorities’ investigation, and as President Trump and Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo have stated, we offer to support this investigation,” the spokesperson said, adding that Trump spoke to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday, and the two leaders agreed that their countries will “cooperate closely to ensure the perpetrators face justice.”
“The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad,” the spokesperson said. “When a U.S. citizen is missing or passes away overseas, we engage with local officials at multiple levels and provide all appropriate consular assistance.”
The FBI said it is in contact with Mexican law enforcement and has “offered assistance and stand ready to assist in the wake of this tragedy.”
ABC News’ Conor Finnegan, Anne Laurent, Tom Llamas and Kirit Radia contributed to this report.