A Kansas City, Kansas, immigration attorney said her family members were among nine people killed Monday in Mexico during an apparent ambush by drug cartel members.
Denise LeBaron-Ramos said her relatives were among the three women, four small children and two infants who were killed. Two of the woman slain were LeBaron-Ramos’ cousins; the other was married to one of her cousins, she said.
The killings took place Monday in a remote, mountainous area in northern Mexico where the Sinaloa cartel has been engaged in a turf war, according to news accounts. LeBaron-Ramos learned of the killings from a relative who posted in the family’s WhatsApp group.
“There’s been something horrible, something’s going on,” a nearby aunt messaged relatives, LeBaron-Ramos recounted Tuesday. “There’s shooting going on and there’s a vehicle on fire and it’s exploding.”
During a news conference at her law office, LeBaron-Ramos said several of her family members had set out to see relatives in the state of Chihuahua, traveling from a small, secluded community about 100 kilometers from the Mexico-U.S. border. The community is a peaceful one of farmers and families, and has existed for decades, she said.
The relatives were traveling during the day, as they always did, because it can be dangerous at night, LeBaron-Ramos told reporters.
Mistaken for a rival gang
Drug cartel gunmen ambushed the family’s vehicles along a dirt road, slaughtering the women and their children in a grisly attack that left one vehicle a burned-out, bullet-riddled hulk, authorities said Tuesday. Mexican Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo said the gunmen may have mistaken the group’s large SUVs for those of rival gangs.
The dead included 8-month-old twins.
The attackers apparently killed one of the women, Christina Langford Johnson, who was married to one of LeBaron-Ramos’ cousins, after she jumped out of her vehicle and waved her hands to show she wasn’t a threat, according to an account published by family members and corroborated by prosecutors and a relative in a telephone interview.
She was a mother of seven, LeBaron-Ramos said. One of her kids, a 7-month-old girl, Faith, was found alone but alive after 11 hours, family said.
“Her names goes with her today,” LeBaron-Ramos said of the girl.
Another woman killed, Rhonita Maria Miller, died with four of her seven children. An extended family member, Austin Cloes, told the Associated Press she was a loving and caring woman who took pride in her kids.
Dawna Langford died with two of her six children; the other four were able to flee the area.
“It is a tragic time for me and my family members,” she said.
Seven children survived, but at least five had bullet wounds or other injuries and were flown to Phoenix for treatment. One of them was in critical condition and four were in stable condition as of Tuesday evening, LeBaron-Ramos said.
The other children were found alive after escaping from the vehicles and hiding in the brush. A 13-year-old boy who survived the attack made it back to the community and told others where the children were.
Around the ambush scene, which stretched for miles, investigators found more than 200 shell casings, mostly from assault rifles.
Mexican officials created a safe passage for loved ones to get to the crime scene Monday night, LeBaron-Ramos said. Some relatives stayed there, next to the burnt SUV, throughout the night.
“They refuse to leave until the vehicle is escorted off the mountain,” she said. “There’s nothing left; the vehicle was torched.”
In a statement on Twitter, President Donald Trump said it was time for Mexico, with help from the U.S., to wage a war on the drug cartels and “wipe them off the face of the earth.”
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador expressed thanks to Trump during a later news conference, but demurred at Trump’s offer, saying: “The worst thing you can have is war,” according to news accounts.
LeBaron-Ramos said it has been difficult for her family to find itself a renewed conversation about how governments in Mexico and the U.S. keep citizens safe. Every person in the caravan was a dual citizen, she said. Asked if López Obrador’s plan to combat cartels was working, LeBaron-Ramos responded: “Absolutely not.”
“It’s not working,” she said. “There has got to be safety implemented.”
The region used to be beautiful, she said. Her relatives could walk the streets until midnight. Her family can’t do that anymore, she said as she began to tear up. The number of cartels in the area has boomed in recent years, but her relatives can’t leave. They have been there for generations and have produced their livelihoods there.
“To think they are going to pick up and move so the cartels can pick up and move in to their homes that they have built with the sweat of their labor and years and years of sacrifices,” LeBaron-Ramos said, “is something their hoping the government helps them stop.”
The victims are members of a faction that long ago broke away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some have family ties in Utah, according to the Associated Press. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah called the slayings “really unthinkable.”
“Mexico has to really knuckle down and go after some of these cartels and stop this escalating level of violence,” he said.
Asked where her family goes from here, LeBaron-Ramos responded: “Funerals.” Four of the relatives can be burried, she said, but the other five will not be able to.
The Ramos Law Firm said family members have set up a GoFundMe account to help raise money for medical and funeral expenses. The page has raised more than $49,000 as of Tuesday afternoon.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.