Slain American women and children drove into region contested by rival Mexican cartels

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Mormons had been targeted by criminals in the past, Attorney General says

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The region of Mexico where three women and six children — all of them American citizens — were killed on Monday has long been a battleground for two rival drug gangs, knowledgeable sources on both sides of the border said.

The nine members of the LeBaron family of northwest Chihuahua were ambushed in a mountainous area, apparently on their way to Agua Prieta, Sonora, by armed men who thought their vehicles were those of a rival drug gang, Mexican officials said.

“The information we have … is that it is a group that has been in that part of Sonora for a long time and that has been involved in several confrontations with another group that (operates) on the border with Chihuahua,” said Jorge Nava, deputy attorney general for Northern Chihuahua.

Nava declined to name the criminal groups involved. However, Austin-based Stratfor Security Group — which tracks Mexican drug cartel activity — on Tuesday identified the groups in a brief titled “Eliminating the cartel that killed 9 Americans in Mexico will not be easy.”

“Heavy fighting between forces loyal to the Sinaloa cartel (Gente Nueva) and remnants of the Juarez cartel (La Linea) has racked the region. Because of this fighting, the ambush could have been a case of mistaken identity,” the Stratfor brief said.

Although the shooting happened a three-hour ride west of Chihuahua state, Nava said state police officers from Juarez, Chihuahua City and the towns of Madera and Galeana had been sent to “secure the border (with Sonora) and prevent any more acts of violence.”

Austin Cloes points to a photo of relatives Rhonita Miller and her family, who were killed in Mexico, on a computer screen Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in Herriman, Utah. Drug cartel gunmen ambushed three SUVs along a dirt road, slaughtering at least six children and three women all of them U.S. citizens living in northern Mexico in a grisly attack that left one vehicle a burned-out, bullet-riddled hulk, authorities said Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Nava and Stratfor analysts noted that the LeBaron family — whose Mormon great-grandparents settled in Chihuahua since the 1920s — has been targeted by organized criminals for more than a decade.

On May 2, 2009, 17-year-old Erik LeBaron was kidnapped from the settlement and held for a $1 million ransom, which the family refused to pay. The family contacted the Mexican government and organized a high-profile public awareness campaign that resulted in his release a week later. But in July of that same year, Erik’s brother Benjamin and another community member named Luis Widmar Stubbs were abducted and murdered. The killers reportedly hung a banner in the town saying the men were murdered because of their family’s anti-crime activism.

“I don’t know who it was who pulled the trigger on this. I don’t know if it was Gente Nueva feeling embattled and under pressure or if someone was angry at the Mormons,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of Tactical Analysis for Stratfor.

Sonora has been Sinaloa cartel territory for some time and, just under two years ago, they seemed to have secured most of Chihuahua as well with the defection of a top La Linea cartel lieutenant known as “El Tigre” (the Tiger), Stewart said.

However, El Tigre “was taken out” and La Linea, with guns and monetary support from the upstart Cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG), has come back strong, Stewart said.

The massacre of the American women and children comes a few days after the botched raid to arrest one of the sons of jailed former Sinaloa drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, so the pressure for both the Mexican government as well as those responsible for the killings will be building up, the analyst said.

“Depending on whether this was a mistake or intentional, in the past we’ve seen incidents in which someone does something really bad that brings undue attention to the group and ends up being executed by their own group. We’ve seen that happen with the Zetas, for example,” Stewart said.

“But it’s also possible that this was related to a conflict with (the Mormons). Whether you’re a reporter, a businessman, a politician or anybody who doesn’t bend to the cartels or dares stand up against them or denounce them, they put themselves in danger,” Stewart added.

The Stratfor executive said the killings are tragic, but he noted that it’s not unusual for entire families to be killed off by the Mexican drug cartels.

“It’s terrible, but we’re all paying attention now because this family is (American) citizens. But this stuff happens all the time and nobody pays attention. Many times we’ve seen people having a birthday party and cartel gunmen going in and killing everybody,” Stewart said. “These atrocities happen all the time, and that’s tragic.”

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