After three women and six children were slaughtered on a remote dirt road in Mexico, relatives and members of their small religious community stood around the smoldering carnage for hours before local authorities arrived.
The horrific massacre in broad daylight stunned even a country long ravaged by drug violence and on pace for a record high number of homicides this year. The convoy carrying women and children was ambushed and sprayed with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. One mother was gunned down as she begged the children be spared.
“I’m the first person that arrived… They never showed up,” said Julian LeBaron, a Mormon community leader related to some of the victims. “We came on the crime scene before any authorities.”
Indeed, Mexico’s latest tragedy in the long fight against cartel violence is viewed by some as a sign its “hugs, not bullets” security strategy – focused on combating social problems – has done little to wrest large chunks of the country from the grip of criminal organizations.
“You do have to go after the inequality, the lack of opportunity that drives criminality but what’s the short-term strategy?” asked Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.
“How is it that you actually go after these criminal groups that are, as we see, willing to directly challenge the state?”
Municipalities have no police officers, Mexican president says
The government quickly suggested the attack was a case of mistaken identity as a result of a conflict between rival drug trafficking groups in a virtually lawless region near the US border.
“We still don’t have all the officers needed,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December, admitted this week. “There are municipalities where we don’t have police… Everything related to public safety was completely abandoned. We’re working on that.”
Mexican officials said the massacre could be linked to a shootout one day earlier in the town of Agua Prieta, across the border from Douglas, Arizona. The corridor is a hub for moving drugs into the US.
A criminal group known as Los Salazar, from Sonora state, exchanged fire with members of La Línea, the Chihuahua-based enforcement arm of the Juarez cartel. La Línea later dispatched an armed group to prevent their rivals from entering Chihuahua, said Gen. Homero Mendoza, Mexico’s chief of staff for national defense. Those gunmen might have mistaken the families’ vehicles for the SUVs of rivals.
At the state level, Chihuahua Attorney General César Peniche Espejel offered another theory: A drug trafficking group known as Los Jaguares, an offshoot of the Sinaloa cartel, could have been behind the massacre.
Mexico’s new ‘hugs, not bullets’ strategy comes under fire
But the attack – coupled with recent violent episodes in the region – has many Mexicans and security analysts questioning the short-term effectiveness of López Obrador’s policy of attacking poverty and inequality rather than the cartels.
“It’s unfortunate, sad, because children died,” López Obrador told reporters this week. “But trying to resolve this problem by declaring a war? In our country, it’s been demonstrated this doesn’t work. This was a disaster.”
The leftist president, known by his initials AMLO, came under criticism after his controversial decision last month to release Ovidio Guzmán López, a leader of the Sinaloa cartel and son of imprisoned kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
A botched government operation to arrest and extradite the younger Guzmán on October 17 was called off after the cartel unleashed a heavily-armed fighting force that outmaneuvered and overpowered military on the streets of Culiacan, the state capital. Guzmán was cut loose and security forces retreated in what was widely seen as a victory for the powerful cartel once headed by his father.
“AMLO’s strategy highlights great failures that have benefited the cartels,” said Raúl Benítez Manaut, a security expert and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “They will not become pacifists on their own volition. On the contrary, the violence is increasing.”
In the western state of Michoacan, 13 Mexican police officers were killed in an ambush last month, authorities said. Images on social media showed posters left on the police vehicles signed “CJNG.” Those are the initials of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a dominant trafficking gang the US Drug Enforcement Agency calls “one of the most powerful and fastest growing in Mexico and the United States.”
“This is an area which is under dispute but is highly valuable for criminal organizations because it’s so close to the US border,” Wilson said.
Massacre may be linked to extortion and kidnapping, expert says
Gladys McCormick, a Syracuse University expert on cartel violence, said the failed attempt to capture El Chapo’s son as well as the ongoing violence indicate “a clear lack of intelligence gathering in the AMLO administration.”
AMLO’s decision last spring to send large numbers of his newly created National Guard, drawn from former soldiers and police, to the border with Guatemala has compounded the problem, she said. The troops have been detaining Central American migrants heading for the US border.
The move, prompted by Trump administration threats to impose tariffs, came “at the expense of increasing violence in places such as Michoacán, Guerrero, Baja California and Chihuahua,” McCormick said.
In a remote corner of northern Mexico, fundamentalist Mormon families who settled in the neighboring states of Chihuahua and Sonora had maintained an uneasy peace with the criminal organizations. But relatives of this week’s victims said cartels had recently threatened families over where they could travel or from whom they could purchase fuel.
“A whole series of sort of mid-tier and lower level and smaller kind of up-and-coming, wannabe cartels are trying to set up shop in this terrain,” McCormick said. “They’re striking deals with each other, with the big players. What I do think is that this (massacre) had nothing to do with drugs per se. I think it had to do with extortion and kidnapping.”
Fundamentalist Mormon families largely coexisted with criminal elements
Chihuahua’s LeBaron family, whose relatives are among the dead, has had a long history of conflict with the cartels.
In 2009, Eric LeBaron was kidnapped and returned unharmed a week later. His older brother, Benjamin LeBaron, 32, became an anti-crime activist who pushed the local community to take a stand against violence.
Months later, Benjamin LeBaron and his brother-in-law Luis Widmar were beaten and shot to death after armed men stormed their home in Chihuahua. Authorities later arrested the alleged ringleader of a drug trafficking family that ran a smuggling operation on Mexico’s border with Texas.
Until now, the fundamentalist Mormon families had largely coexisted with the criminal elements around them.
“We haven’t been threatened, at least not in any way to suppose that women and children would be murdered,” said Julian LeBaron, an outspoken critic of organized crime in the area. “We see the armed people all the time and they kind of leave us alone.”
After the attack, Trump called for war against Mexico’s drug cartels in a series of tweets.
“This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth. We merely await a call from your great new president!” he wrote.
Mexican authorities noted the cartridges recovered from the massacre site were manufactured in the US.
Nahoma Jensen De LeBaron, the cousin of one of the nine victims, said the cartels thrive only because of the insatiable appetite for drugs north of the border.
“I believe the United States is the reason why Mexico has drug cartels, because they’re the biggest consumers,” LeBaron told CNN en Español before families buried more of the victims on Friday.
“Our plea to Mexico is we need a justice system that (ensures) those who commit these atrocities be brought to justice.”
CNN’s Matt Rivers, Gonzalo Alvarado and Natalie Gallón contributed to this report.