9 American Mormons died in a brutal ambush in Mexico. This is the untold story of the hunt for justice by those left behind. (2024)



On the morning of November 4, 2019, dozens of men armed with assault rifles positioned themselves for an ambush along a dirt path through Sonora, Mexico, 70 miles from the US border. Three SUVs arrived, two driving ahead, one lagging behind. Inside the vehicles were three mothers and 14 children. On their way from the farming village of La Mora, some were traveling to a wedding and others north into Arizona.

The gunmen opened fire, first attacking the vehicle behind and then striking the two cars in front. The bullets pierced through the vehicles — through cushions, dashboards, and windows. The men then torched one of the cars, a Chevrolet Tahoe carrying Rhonita Miller LeBaron and four of her children, reducing its frame to a charred husk of metal. The men shot Christina Langford Johnson dead after she climbed out her Suburban, reportedly to plead for mercy. In all, three women and six children were killed.

Amid the great brutality fortune showed flashes of mercy. Five children survived bullets to the back, jaw, leg, wrist, and chest, and hid terrified for hours on the freezing mountainside. A boy trekked 14 miles to seek aid. His 9-year-old sister wandered lost on dirt paths, with one shoe, her foot bloody and blistered. The fusillade also missed Faith Marie Johnson, Christina's 7-month-old daughter, who sat in a car seat in the back. With her head nicked by a fragment of shrapnel, she would survive more than nine hours without food, water, or milk, until a group of relatives, including Julian LeBaron — a carpenter and anti-crime activist from a sprawling Mormon family — arrived to rescue her. "She opened her eyes, like, 'What's up?'" he said. "I think she had been crying all day."

The obvious suspects were the drug cartels who have waged a bloody war across Mexico, sowing massacres and filling mass graves. North of the border, cartel atrocities — such as the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa or the slaughter of 72 migrants in San Fernando — never seemed to galvanize great concern. This time would be different.


The brutality of the killings, and that the victims were US citizens and members of a cross-border Mormon community, captured the American imagination. It roused the attention of President Donald Trump, whose tweets about the attack spurred blanket media coverage, particularly on Fox News. In the days after, a Republican lawmaker even raised the possibility of sending US troops into Mexico, an idea seemingly inspired by action films. And in a rare agreement between the countries, FBI agents were allowed over the border to assist in an investigation.

Both the White House and Mexico's National Palace promised that those responsible would be punished, but by spring the pledges had gone unfilled. An opaque investigation by Mexico's attorney general office led to a string of questionable arrests, and families of some suspects took to the streets to declare their innocence.

Gen. Homero Mendoza, who oversaw a federal commission on the case, said gunmen from the Juárez cartel had attacked the women and children by accident. But the theory — mistaking them for cartel hit men — raised serious doubts. The investigation seemed to be devolving into a mess, as many high-profile investigations in Mexico do.

Without justice, conspiracy theories flourished. According to one, the victims had been targeted by angry farmers in a dispute over water rights. Another said that their deaths came as part of a US plot to invade Sonora and lay claim to its valuable lithium deposits. Others claimed it was part of a plot to destabilize the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had promised to end the drug war through a policy of "hugs not bullets."


After the La Mora attack I interviewed dozens of members of the Mormon communities, police officers, federal agents, relatives of the suspects, and witnesses to the aftermath of the killings. I found a series of scattered pieces. The first responders to the crime were cartel gunmen. A military machine gun was used in the attack. A shoot-out in a nearby town went on for hours longer than reported. The LeBaron family had a bloody history with both cartels and Mexican soldiers. And a cartel boss who had recently switched sides was making a savage grab for territory.

In what follows, I've attempted to offer the most detailed account of this tragedy.

In late February, Julian LeBaron, the relative and activist who appeared widely on television, fled to the US. He said he had received information that a cartel had planned to assassinate him. Many others from La Mora also went stateside, bringing the future of their farm into question. The Mormons were outsiders who had carved out a fruitful life in the arid hills of northern Mexico, and hoped the cartel war would leave them untouched. But the bubble of security in which they lived had burst.

During a cold, sunny week in January, I visited the town of La Mora. Media coverage of the killings has been riddled with errors, the residents said. They don't live in compounds, nor do they all hold the same religious beliefs. The massacre affected not only the LeBarons but the Langfords, Millers, Rays, and Johnsons, too, all prominent members of the Mormon enclaves in Sonora and Chihuahua.


In La Mora, I went into a broad one-story house to meet Jenny Langford, a warm Welshwoman in her early 70s, and Amelia Sedgwick Langford, a slim woman in her late 50s from the US. Both were wives of Dan Langford, the late founder of La Mora. All lived together to raise their combined 23 children, who went on to have 102 grandchildren. During our meeting, a number of smiling children and grandchildren came and went, offering me homemade bread, honey, and spaghetti.

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Amelia, who lost her daughter Christina in the attack, told me true justice would mean finding not just the gunmen but those who planned the carnage that day in November. "Just getting the person that shot my daughter and having him put away — that isn't going to fix it," she said.

Sitting across the sofa, Jenny said she had no regrets about leaving a working-class life in the UK to live close to nature in a large polygamous family in Mexico. But the lifestyle she'd led for almost half a century has come under threat. "There are people who have left this farm because they believe the worst, that it was a planned deal and next time it might be us," she said. "We believe the only answer really is divine intervention. That's what I'm praying for."



When a few hundred Mormons first crossed the Rio Grande and settled in Mexico in 1885, they took sanctuary in a valley near the indigenous ruins of Paquimé. There, they would start a community called Colonia Juárez. But they soon ran into a problem — a lack of water, with dry months seeing only a trickle emerging from a riverbed that cut through the semidesert of Chihuahua.

Then, one afternoon, an earthquake shook the valley. "When morning dawned, to the Saints' amazement, the trickle of water in the riverbed was now a large stream," E. Leroy Hatch, a resident of the colonies, wrote in a history. "The earth tremors had opened hot springs twenty miles up the river."

Such stories color the accounts of the Mormons in Mexico. (Hatch even compared their exodus to the Israelites search for the promised land.) But their move had a political angle.

Since the 1850s, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invited congregants to practice plural marriage. As the US government cracked down on the practice, eventually making it a felony, some devotees looked to Mexico, where it was largely tolerated. After the LDS itself banned polygamy, Mormon migrants expanded their communities south of the border, from Chihuahua and Sonora to as far as Baja California and Quintana Roo.


Alma Dayer LeBaron, the patriarch of a vast polygamous dynasty, was born in Arizona, raised in Colonia Juárez, and founded the nearby Colonia LeBaron. Some of his relatives claim he has up to 7,000 descendants over five generations, making the LeBarons the biggest family in the Americas. (Some of the fathers have 50 children or more.) In the 1950s, Alma's son Joel said he experienced visions of God telling him to build a holy kingdom on earth. So he founded his own temple, whose worshippers regarded him as a prophet. In "The LeBaron Story," a book by his brother Verlan, he says Joel also warned the US would collapse "and that great destructions and sufferings would take place."

In the 1970s, Ervil, another LeBaron brother, experienced visions too. He founded a breakaway church that eventually became a murderous cult. Ervil and his followers, including some of his 13 wives, are alleged by investigators to have killed dozens of victims in Mexico and the US, including his brother Joel. "He claimed the right over life and death, branding all who opposed him criminals," Verlan wrote. The cult members carried on killing even after Ervil — dubbed "The Mormon Manson" — died in a Utah prison in 1981.

Across the mountains from Colonia LeBaron, a Mormon father and his four sons, the Langfords, immigrated to found La Mora in the late 1950s. The village would grow until 300 people either lived there, or visited for holidays. At the start, the poor families of La Mora grew their own food, wore hand-me-down shoes, and washed their clothes in the river. But things changed when the young men of the community found lucrative work in the subzero oil fields of North Dakota during the energy boom of the 2000s. Some became wealthy by planting the pecan trees. The families laid deep roots, and one of the eldest children, Adam Langford, was elected mayor of Bavispe, a rustic town nearby.

Over time, a smattering of marriages would draw together La Mora and the larger, more prosperous Colonia LaBaron. Today, many members of Mexico's Mormon communities split their time between Mexico and the US. Some follow strict LDS teachings, others pray in fundamentalist churches. Some still practice polygamy, while others are atheist or agnostic. Some are light-skinned and blonde, others brown-skinned with dark hair. Some speak English as a first language, some Spanish, others both, and they listen to American country music alongside Mexican rancheros.



Alex LeBaron, a tall, bearded 39-year-old, grew up in Colonia LeBaron before serving as a US Navy officer and member of the Mexican congress. Today, he tends to his pecan grove full time. In his youth in the 1980s and '90s, drug traffickers were seen as regular people, poor folks trying to make it. "We were surrounded by major drug cartels, and they never bothered us and we coexisted with them," LeBaron said. Mutual respect governed the relationship. "Most of the leadership of the local drug cartels back in those days were pretty socially responsible … We never grew up hating these people or seeing them as our enemies."

This amity between drug traffickers and communities once prevailed across Mexico. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, which ran Mexico for most of the 20th century, kept the gangsters in check and let the police tax the cartels while taking down token mobsters. Traffickers expanded from opium and marijuana to cocaine, heroin, and crystal meth.

When the presidency finally changed hands, in 2000, Mexicans celebrated a new era of democracy. But with politics thrown on its head, the control over the cartels crumbled.


In 2006, President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels, but they fought both Mexican security forces and one another, armed with the Kalashnikovs and AR-15s that flooded in from the US. The war came to the Mormons' states. Sonora, where La Mora is, fell under the control of the Sinaloa cartel, while Chihuahua fell under the control of the Juárez cartel.

With an army of hit men, the Sinaloa cartel pushed into Ciudad Juárez. But the Juárez cartel had become a powerful force divided into several factions, among them the Barrio Azteca, a gang that controlled the streets; La Linea, the core traffickers and their gunmen; and the Linces, an elite squad of former soldiers. The clash of cartels made Juárez the most murderous city on the planet, with more than 9,000 homicides between 2008 and 2011.

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The turmoil hit the pockets of the cartels, who diversified their criminal activities to include extortion and kidnappings. Rich ranchers and businessmen had hoped to be spared. Then the cartels started kidnapping them.

The Mormons were no exception. The first sign that they would be caught up in the bloodshed came in 2005, before Calderon declared war on the cartels. That year, Alex's father was murdered in a carjacking in Sonora. Alex pressured police to solve the case, and found the culprit was a local car thief killed in a shootout.


In May 2009 cartel operatives abducted Eric LeBaron, then a teenager, and demanded a million-dollar ransom from his family, which included wealthy farmers. But the LeBarons refused, predicting the gangsters would keep coming after their many children until they had nothing. The family marched to the state capital in Chihuahua, demanding security. A week later the cartel released Eric.

The LeBarons became unofficial crisis advisers for other families dealing with kidnappings. One of the elder sons, 32-year-old Benjamin LeBaron, became a spokesman, talking about the need for solidarity against kidnapping. In the early hours of July 7, 2009, gunmen went to his house and shot him dead, along with his brother-in-law Luis Widmar. "The drug cartels were fed up with our leadership in the area," Alex said. The murders shook the LeBarons, who began guarding the entrances to town with guns. But Benjamin's death was not the end.

Several months later, another incident occurred that has gone largely unreported. On the night of October 9, 2009, Alex's brother, DJ LeBaron, hosted a gathering at his farm. At midnight, a truck pulled up to the gate and switched off its lights. DJ, his brother, and a worker sneaked out with guns drawn. They could hear men shuffling with weapons. "It was a super-dark night, no moon," DJ said. "We automatically thought these guys were bad news … At that moment gunshots started going off."

Both sides fired; bullets hit two of the intruders. They piled the wounded into their vehicle and left. DJ saw it was a military pickup. "My heart just dropped to the ground. I was, like, 'Oh f*ck.' … 'We're in deep sh*t.'"


After several of the LeBarons gathered on the farm and called the federal police, the soldiers returned in force. One of their numbers had died, they revealed. DJ and some others in the LeBaron camp eventually agreed to go into military custody, but only after the federal police took their photos, a measure to help prevent them from being disappeared. That night, the soldiers threatened and beat DJ, but he believed that the fact he was photographed by the police saved him from being buried in the desert.

Ultimately, the military released a statement saying it had been doing a routine patrol. DJ was initially charged with murder and locked in a Juárez prison. But a judge, seeing the killing had been accidental and the soldiers had sneaked up on the farm, dropped the case.

As DJ left the jail, a soldier gave him a message. "One guy looked at me directly in the eye. He's like, 'You're probably getting out right now. But we're going to f*cking get you out there'… Obviously, they are still upset. One of their guys got killed … I did hear rumors for a lot of years that they were planning some retaliation."

The LeBarons took their struggle to the national stage. Julian, a stocky carpenter and brother of the murdered Benjamin, joined peace marches led by Javier Sicilia, a celebrated poet, whose son had also been killed by cartel thugs. In plazas across the country, they joined parents morning for their slain children and helped Mexico come to understand that many of the dead were innocents.


Alex's activism helped vault him to the state legislature, and then to a seat in the federal congress as a member of the PRI. As his first move in Chihuahua, he supported a harsh anti-kidnapping law. Afterwards, kidnappings in Chihuahua dropped radically, from 233 reported cases in 2009 to just eight by 2014. "This made a huge difference for many years," Alex said.

But following a dip in murders, they swung back up in 2015 and reached new heights after López Obrador won power in 2018. Meanwhile, the extradition of El Chapo Guzman in 2017 weakened the Sinaloa cartel and a new generation of Juárez gangsters began pushing back, igniting fighting along the Sonora-Chihuahua border. This time it was the Juárez cartel's La Linea gang, who were intent on seizing territory.

In 2019 tensions rose along that border. Locals would drive from Sonora into Chihuahua to buy cheaper gas. But two men made the trip and never returned and everyone stopped going.

In June, a convoy of over 100 gunmen traveled from Chihuahua to the Sonoran village of Tesopaco, torching cars and killing at least 15 people. Some of the attacks were reported to be led by a gangster called El Tolteca, who had flipped sides from the Sinaloa cartel to Juárez.


One problem of the drug war is there are always more villains waiting in the wings.

"It's one of these things you always have to be working on," Alex said. "A never-ending process of good against evil."


On the evening of Sunday, November 3, 2019, a convoy of vehicles raced through Pancho Villa, Chihuahua, a ramshackle village along the dirt path leading to La Mora. A circus had come to the village that evening. After its performance, residents gathered. They said the convoy looked ominous — typical of those of cartel operatives. Something bad could be going down and they should stay in their houses, they said.


About 1:30 a.m. on November 4, another convoy of vehicles carrying gunmen drove into Agua Prieta, a town about 100 miles northwest of La Mora, on the US border. They sprayed bullets and torched cars. Local cartel gunmen emerged and fired back at the invaders.

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Francisco Portillo, 34, a burrito seller, awoke to bullets pelting the walls of his cinder-block home. "I woke up thinking it was my sister being angry," he said. "Then I heard a lot of gunshots and I thought the roof might fall in. It was war."

The gunfight lasted three hours, killed at least two people, and left burned-out cars and bullet shells across the city.

Hours later, Rhonita Miller LeBaron, Christina Langford Johnson, and Dawna Ray Langford set off from La Mora to Chihuahua. They'd agreed to caravan together for safety, using an old dirt road running through the mountains, a popular shortcut among locals. They would each drive a Suburban and take 14 children.


Rhonita, 31, had planned to drive to Phoenix to pick up her husband, who was flying in from work in North Dakota. She was a granddaughter of the "prophet" Joel, one of 39 children of his son Adrian. She grew up between LeBaron, California, and Colorado, and married Howard Miller, a farmer in La Mora.

"All of us are as close-knit as you can get," her sister Adriana told me. Rhonita loved to bake bread and was the heart and soul of her family, Adriana said.

Christina, 31, was a talented pianist who wrote her music. She was on her way to Colonia LeBaron and the next day would be moving back to North Dakota because of her husband's work. She was the daughter of Amelia and La Mora founder Dan Langford. Amelia described her as strong-willed. "She was very determined and focused on whatever she did," Amelia said. "She was like her dad, very disciplined, and yet she was sunshine. Every time you see her she had a smile."

Dawna, 43, was heading back to Chihuahua to attend a wedding. She grew up in Chihuahua, where her father was a follower of Joel LeBaron. She and her husband had 13 children. She was the "favorite of the whole family … very loving," her father, Jay Ray, said as he broke into tears.



The convoy set off about 9 a.m. But then Rhonita found a fault with the ball bearings in a wheel, so they stopped and got a message back to La Mora. A family member lent her a Tahoe.

As Rhonita changed cars, Christina and Dawna pressed on. Rhonita finally moved off, getting just half a mile down the dirt road at about 9:40 when the sound of gunfire echoed across the valley. It came from a nearby hill — gunmen with AR-15s and a Minimi, a military machine gun used by the Mexican army.

After a devastating barrage of bullets, gunmen descended, threw gasoline on the car and set it ablaze, unleashing a plume of smoke visible to the residents of La Mora.


Adam Langford was among the first on the scene. "The fire had gone down a little," he said. He looked into the vehicle. "The first thing I saw was of course the bones. It just scared the hell out of us." Among the charred bodies were those of two 8-month-old twins.

Local police commander Cristian Martinez arrived shortly after. He looked through the sights of his rifle, down the dirt road, and saw figures fleeing – four adults, nearly a mile away. "I was alone and I didn't want to risk fighting them … They were in military helmets, some in black, some in camouflage." Cartel hit men, especially the elite units like the Linces, often wear military gear.

The police force in Bavispe, a town close to the crime scene, has just three officers. So Martinez alerted state and federal authorities, who took about six hours to show up. In the meantime, he raised the alarm in La Mora, telling the school to close in case the village came under fire.

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Tellingly, the first forces to pursue the attackers appeared to be Sinaloa cartel gunmen. According to some residents, including Martinez, a convoy of six or so vehicles assembled on the main road and sped off into the hills. "They were hard trucks, Tritons, with blacked-out windows," Martinez said. He guessed the gunmen were "the people charged with defending this territory."


Residents of La Mora heard intermittent bursts of gunfire throughout the afternoon, presumably as the Sinaloa gunmen clashed with the invaders in the hills. In Mexico's drug war, such a situation is unsurprising; outgunned local police will often stand aside and let cartels fight it out.

La Mora residents lit up WhatsApp, alerting family in Mexico and the US. Julian LeBaron and a dozen others mustered in Colonia LeBaron and headed to the mountain path. But when they arrived at the Pancho Villa ranch, soldiers told them it was too dangerous and made them wait.

Shortly after the first ambush, 14 miles down the path a second squad of gunmen attacked Dawna's and Christina's Suburbans from the side of a hill, spraying the vehicles with bullets. When they saw that some children had survived, they apologized and ordered them to run. The seven children, five of whom had suffered bullet wounds, hid under trees, cold and hungry.

Devin Langford, Dawna's 13-year-old son, decided he could not sit and wait. "Going through my mind was to get help because [all the children were] bleeding really bad, so I was in a rush to get there," he told ABC News. "If there was anybody else out there trying to shoot me or following me, I was trying to hide myself the best I could … I prayed a lot."


At about 5 p.m., Devin, bloody and exhausted, arrived on the road near La Mora. Hearing the news, family members approached the site of the killings from both sides. From Pancho Villa, Julian and others went with federal police. From La Mora, Adam went with a group of soldiers who had finally shown up.

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When he arrived, Adam discovered a horrific scene of children fighting to survive. After the family members counted the survivors, they discovered 9-year-old Mckenzie was missing, and a frantic search ensued. Sometime after 9 p.m., soldiers ran into Mckenzie. She'd stumbled over 10 miles along the dirt path. One of her shoes was missing.

Adam was heartbroken to see his sister Christina dead in the dirt, but he took solace in knowing Faith, his baby niece, had survived. He helped get her back to La Mora and into the arms of her grandmother Amelia.

"When they brought her to us, she was very weak," Amelia said. "They tried to give her a bottle, but she wouldn't really drink it ... She was a nursing baby." After some nursing, "she greeted everyone with a smile and was happy to be with people again."


More family members gathered around the bodies on the dirt path, until the forensic teams finally collected them in the morning. Adriana described how her mother sat in the freezing cold next to the burned-out car, speaking to her daughter Rhonita as her charred corpse lay inside. "She would cry and talk to her and then get overwhelmed and go sit on a rock and dry her eyes out for 30 minutes," she said. Then she would "shake it off and stand up and walk around and talk to them some more."


Hundreds of relatives journeyed from across the US for three days of funerals in La Mora and LeBaron. The families used a workshop in La Mora to craft wooden coffins for the victims, including small boxes for the children. At the funeral many caskets were open. The families wished their loved ones goodbye and lowered them into the earth using leather straps, the mothers lying alongside their children just as they had died. "The eyes of the world are upon what happened here, and there are saints all over this world whose hearts have been touched," Jay Ray, Dawna's father, eulogized. "God will take care of the wicked."

For a time, President Trump also seemed poised to do the same.


"A wonderful family and friends from Utah got caught between two vicious drug cartels, who were shooting at each other, with the result being many great American people killed, including young children, and some missing," he posted on Twitter on November 5. "If Mexico needs or requests help in cleaning out these … monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively … the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!"

Mexicans regard the idea of direct US military intervention in their country as roundly off limits and a threat to their proud sovereignty. But for the first time in a century, the prospect of such intervention appeared possible.

Arkansas's Republican Sen. Tom Cotton told Fox that the US should consider using special forces, citing how they had taken down Bin Laden. "If the president directed them to do so [special forces] could impose a world of hurt on these cartels a few dozen miles away from the American border," he said.

Temperatures rose further when some of the LeBaron family launched a petition to persuade the US to name cartels as terrorist groups, which could allow American forces to strike at them. Adriana Jones LeBaron said the petition was born from the ineffective response by Mexican authorities. Faith "could have starved to death and died. Those kids could have bled to death. … We are just pissed off," she said.


The petition had an immediate impact on the White House. On November 26, former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly asked Trump if he planned to designate the cartels as terrorist groups and perhaps hit them "with drones and things like that."

Trump responded, "I don't want to say what I'm going to do, but they will be designated. I have been working on that for the last 90 days." In response, Mexico's foreign secretary warned that his government could not accept a "violation of national sovereignty." Days later, Trump backtracked, saying he would delay the designation at the request of President López Obrador.

But the fact that the LeBarons had invited their powerful northern neighbor to attack enraged some people in Mexico. YouTuber Nacho Rodriguez, aka "El Chapucero," posted a video titled "The LeBarons went to Washington to insist on the invasion of Mexico." Comments on social media called for the family's expulsion from the country.

The family told me it found the insults hurtful, but Adriana said Trump's threat may have at least gotten the attention of the López Obrador, who met with victims' families in Mexico City in December and went to La Mora in January. Federal investigators, charged with solving the case, also descended on the region.



From the start, the investigation into the massacre looked confused. In a press conference the day after the killings, Alfonso Durazo, Mexico's security secretary, laid out an error-riddled timeline of what transpired, saying the attack happened at 1 p.m., hours later than it did. That same day, the attorney general of Chihuahua blamed the killings on the Sinaloa cartel and El Jaguar, one of its operatives. In a press conference the following day, Mexican Gen. Homero Mendoza gave a correct timeline of the events. He blamed La Linea, a wing of the Juárez cartel.

The Mexican government allowed FBI agents to assist in the investigation, particularly with ballistics. Most of the bullets had been made in the US by Remington. For several days, FBI agents crossed the border from Douglas into Agua Prieta and flew by helicopter to La Mora, taking bags of food and water with them. (They'd been ordered not to consume anything locally.) They examined the shooting angles and distances from the hills and interviewed witnesses.

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The FBI declined to comment in detail on its discoveries, saying in a statement only that the agency remained "committed to working alongside [its] international partners to help bring justice to the perpetrators of this heinous act of violence."


But Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations for the DEA, said that it would be tough for the agency to uncover much. For one thing, its agents went to the crime scene several days after the fact. Much of the evidence had been destroyed and what remained had been contaminated, he said. Foreign-police practices and language barriers could also impede them. "They are going to have a very difficult time maneuvering … They are paddling a canoe upriver without a paddle."

Then, in mid-November, a key piece of evidence emerged: a video filmed by the attackers, apparently after they'd shot up Rhonita's vehicle. It had been taken from the cellphone of an arrested suspect, an officer from Mexico's National Guard told me.

A federal agent showed the video to Adam Langford, who described it to me. It showed between 10 and 14 gunmen in black clothes and bulletproof jackets, and had been filmed "right after the kill — the hood is steaming," Adam said. "It was the guys going round the vehicle. The video is from the top down, and so the sicarios were checking out what they killed, seeing their prey." At the end, one of the gunmen shouts "Quemalo!" or "Burn it!"

Aided by the video evidence, Mexican police and soldiers made a string of arrests. But the news of the arrests came sporadically, often relayed by the LeBaron family. In December, there seemed to be a breakthrough in the case when security forces nabbed two brothers, Mario and Luis Manuel Hernandez, in the town of Janos, close to Pancho Villa. Federal agents leaked to the press that the suspects were local leaders of La Linea. But family members and neighbors protested on the street, claiming they were innocent.


In January, I drove to Janos and found the family living in a simple home with a rickety truck from the '70s. They owned a shop that sold pet food. Jesus Carlos, a brother of the suspects, claimed they had been framed and marines planted drugs and bullets in their home. He showed me their house and introduced me to their sick, bedridden father. Luis Manuel looked after the father full-time and was there on the day of the massacre, he said, while Mario did odd jobs and bought truck parts.

"They say Mario is a boss of La Linea. Well, if he is a boss of La Linea, and you see his truck from 1976, then I am Amado Carrillo," the Juarez drug lord, he said. "Look how we live."

It also seemed unlikely that the brothers could scramble around the hillsides to take part in the shootings: Luis Manuel weighed 440 pounds and Mario 350 pounds, according to the also very overweight Jesus Carlos. "If I have to hike up that mountain, I might as well just kill myself," Hernandez said. "We're not made for that."

In January, a court ordered the Hernandez brothers be sent to a federal prison on general organized-crime charges, rather than specifically for the murder. Officials were publicly tying the brothers to the massacre but prosecuting for different crimes as they continued to claim their innocence. Federal agents also arrested the police chief of Janos, along with two people in the nearby town of Casas Grandes.


The Mexican attorney general turned down requests for an interview on the case, saying that the investigation was ongoing.

While the resolution of the case looked unlikely, Adam Langford remained optimistic. "I think it will be a case where they will get every last one of them," he said. He estimated 40 people could have been involved in the attack, based on his discussions with US and Mexican agents and examination of the crime scenes.

But Vigil, the former DEA agent, said the fact the Mexican government was being opaque about the arrests showed it didn't have anything to brag about. "I don't think the Mexican government is sure that they were actually involved in the killing," he said.



In late November, a Mexican columnist wrote a piece titled "What is the interest of the gringos in Sonora: the narcos or the lithium?" It linked the Mora massacre to the discovery nearby of huge amounts of lithium, the metal used in batteries for cellphones. "Today, the biggest deposits of lithium on the planet about to be exploited are in Sonora, Mexico, by chance right around where women and children of the LeBaron family were massacred," the journalist Zósimo Camacho wrote.

9 American Mormons died in a brutal ambush in Mexico. This is the untold story of the hunt for justice by those left behind. (6)

The theories did not stop there. Another alleged that the LeBarons were the victims in a fight over water. Ranchers from Colonia LeBaron had ongoing disputes over use of wells with El Barzon, a group of local farmers. In 2018, members of El Barzon broke into one of the Mormon's ranches and threw stones until a resident fired warning shots.

Observers also pointed out that Mexico's public-security secretary, Alfonso Durazo, happens to be from Bavispe, the town close to the attacks. "For many Sonorans, this is not a coincidence. They believe that the crime could be a message to the Secretary," Laura Carlson, director of the Americas Program think tank, wrote. In October, Durazo faced criticism for ordering soldiers to release the captured suspect Ovidio Guzman, the son of the drug lord El Chapo, after cartel gunmen rose up in the city of Culiacan.

The Mexican government espoused its own theory: The Juárez cartel attacked the cars under the mistaken belief that they carried Sinaloa gunmen. According to Gen. Mendoza, the Agua Prieta shootout earlier on November 4 was between the Sinaloa cartel and La Linea. After that, La Linea deployed gunmen to stop a counterattack from the Sinaloans and Los Salazar, an affiliated local group. On high alert, the La Linea gunmen attacked the vehicles carrying the Mormon convoy, under the mistaken belief that they were rivals, he said. "La Linea, with the threat of the Salazars entering Chihuahua, decided to send a cell between Janos and Bavispe to stop any incursion," he said. "That is what led to the materialization of these aggressions."


But there are holes in this story. To reach La Mora, the Juárez gunmen would have had to push several hours from Chihuahua into enemy territory. They would likely have done some of this by foot to avoid the Sinaloa lookouts and to climb the hills. Perched on the hilltops, they could have seen Rhonita and her children changing cars, or Christina begging for mercy.

Drawing from my own years of reporting on the cartel wars and my research in the case, I could see a different series of events. The Juárez cartel could have ordered attacks into Sonora as part of a longer campaign to seize the territory. It appeared to send in separate groups of gunmen — one to attack Agua Prieta, one to attack the Bavispe area near the Mormon communities.

The gunmen deliberately torched vehicles and shot at random civilians, as they had in the other attacks. When a cartel attacks it can define any residents of its rival's territory as targets. Hitting them draws out the local gunmen, at whom they can then shoot. The attacks also serve to "heat the plaza," or bring in more security forces into their enemy's territory. The gunmen were effective shots who set up a military-style ambush — but then former soldiers fight in the ranks of the Juárez cartel.

The cartels didn't care if they killed civilians. So in that sense it was not accidental, but part of their tactics of terror. Yet they may not have planned on going as far as murdering nine American women and children. Still, whether through incompetence or corruption, the security forces were so slow they allowed them to escape. The gunmen then disappeared from the area, frustrating the federal agents trying to make arrests. Those detained may be marginal players, or innocent.



In late January, the families of murder victims from across Mexico marched four days from the town of Cuernavaca to the National Palace in Mexico City calling for "truth, justice, and peace." Javier Sicilia was once again on the road, joined by the family of the prolific Sinaloan journalist Javier Valdez, shot dead by cartel gunmen in 2017, as well as many mourners carrying photos of loved ones lost to drug-war violence. They walked part of the way in one shoe, in honor of young Mckenzie Langford.

Hundreds of members of the LeBaron family attended, including Alex, Julian, DJ, Adriana, and Adrian, along with the Widmars and Rays. I asked Alex if he really thought they could change things through protest. "It's better than not marching," he said.

A more upbeat Julian said: "We can blame and complain about what the government does all day long, but that will never fix our problem. We have to act … Any society that allows their people to be murdered with impunity eventually ends up losing all of their freedom."


Articulate and telegenic, he'd become the most recognizable of the family through his appearances on Mexican television.

While many sympathized with his calls for change, others accused him and Sicilia of being stooges for the right-wing opposition against López Obrador. When the marchers arrived in Mexico City's central plaza, a gaggle of counter protesters pushed at them and shouted "Fuera LeBaron!" ("LeBaron out!"). I asked one of the chanters, a middle-aged woman, why she opposed people who had so suffered. "Because the LeBarons just come to take land from indigenous people," she said. "It was a settling of scores."

Adrian LeBaron took to the stage and hit back. "We are human beings fighting to live," he shouted. "We don't want to just survive Mexico … For this I shout at the government … I love you, Mexico."

In late February, Julian, at home in Chihuahua, got a call from US officials. They had solid intelligence that the cartel planned to kill him, they told him. He hid behind a wall in his house with a knife and called federal police to come and escort him to the US border. The next day, he said, a mob of gunmen were spotted close to his home. When he reached Seattle, I talked to him by phone and asked him why he thought the cartel wanted to kill him. "Because of everything," he said. "We are a thorn in their side."


9 American Mormons died in a brutal ambush in Mexico. This is the untold story of the hunt for justice by those left behind. (7)

In April he returned to Mexico and released a cutting statement. "Five months after the massacre of La Mora, the only thing we have proven is the judicial power is a mafia. The legislative power is a mafia and the executive power is a criminal organization," he tweeted.

In La Mora, residents seemed less enthused about taking the fight to the national stage. Adam Langford said it was unrealistic to think they could change Mexico. He wanted to carry on living here without drawing more attention. The federal agencies had poured many resources into the investigation, he said, and he was confident it would prevail.

Amelia said that despite the tragedy she had found peace. "I'm not going to live my life in fear of what might happen next," she said. "I'm not going to live my life in bitterness and anger." The killers are probably already dead, she added, and said she even feels compassion for them. Jenny Langford cut in. "I hope they are dead," she said. "Because there isn't justice."

As we talked, a daughter brought Faith, the infant survivor, into the room. Amelia played with her granddaughter, bouncing her off her legs. Faith was wide-eyed, glowing, healthy. After hearing about the miracle of her survival, she had become a celebrity around town.


I wondered how she'd interpret her story when she grew up, how she'd view surviving a hail of bullets. I wondered if she'd live in a more peaceful world than the one that claimed her mother's life.



Ioan Grillo has covered Latin America since 2001 for news publications including Time, The Associated Press, and The New York Times. He is the author of "Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America."


Siddhartha Mahanta is a features editor at Business Insider.


Samantha Lee is the senior graphics editor for Business Insider.

Hollis Johnson is the senior photo editor at Business Insider.


Skye Gould is the design director for Business Insider.


Steven D. Cohen is a freelance researcher.

9 American Mormons died in a brutal ambush in Mexico. This is the untold story of the hunt for justice by those left behind. (2024)


What happened to the Mormons in Mexico? ›

9 American Mormons died in a brutal ambush in Mexico. This is the untold story of the hunt for justice by those left behind.

What is the story of the Mormon murders? ›

In 1984, Brenda Lafferty and her toddler daughter Erica were brutally murdered by members of the Lafferty family who believed their actions were cosigned by a direct revelation from God.

Who killed the LeBarón family in Mexico? ›

LeBarón and Langford families massacre
Langford, Miller-LeBarón, & Johnson families massacre
PerpetratorsLa Línea (suspected)
5 more rows

What religious group was murdered in Mexico? ›

Who are the victims? Howard Miller, the man in the black shirt, and the three children with blurred faces survived the attack. The five others were killed. The victims are part of a Mormon community of about 3,000 members living in Mexico.

Are there still Mormons in Mexico? ›

In 1848, Mexico ceded this territory to the United States; Utah became a state in 1896. Generations later, U.S.-Mexico border towns remain home to communities of fundamentalist Mormons. Many Mormons living in Mexico speak both English and Spanish and hold dual citizenship.

How much of Mexico is Mormon? ›

The Church has 227 stakes throughout the country, which has 31 states plus the federal district of Mexico City. The Church has just over 1.5 million members in Mexico, which is the second-largest number of members in a country, behind the United States and just ahead of Brazil.

Do Mormons believe in Jesus? ›

Like most Christians, Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Creator of the World. However, Mormons hold the unique belief that God the Father and Jesus Christ are two distinct beings.

Who was the serial killer in the LDS Church? ›

Ervil LeBaron
BornErvil Morrell LeBaron February 22, 1925 Galeana Municipality, Chihuahua, Mexico
DiedAugust 15, 1981 (aged 56) Draper, Utah, US
Other namesThe Mormon Manson
SpouseAt least 13
11 more rows

Who is the Mormon lady who killed her two kids? ›

Idaho woman Lori Vallow was in May found guilty of killing her 16-year-old daughter Tylee Ryan and adopted seven-year-old son Joshua “JJ” Vallow.

Does the LeBarón colony still exist? ›

Fundamentalist Mormon colonies

One fundamentalist group, the LeBaron family, had established Colonia Le Barón in the state of Chihuahua by the 1920s. Many descendants of these fundamentalist Mormons continue to live in the newer settlements, although not all continue to practice polygamy.

Who is Mexico's most notorious serial killer? ›

Gregorio Cárdenas Hernández was Mexico's most infamous serial killer. After he confessed to killing four young women and burying them behind his home, he became the darling of the crime pages and criminological experts alike, and his case provoked a lively debate over the reinstatement of the death penalty in congress.

What is blood atonement in Mormonism? ›

Blood atonement was once a teaching of the Mormon Church. Brigham Young first preached about blood atonement in the 1850s, though Joseph Smith may have thought of it first. Blood atonement taught that murder is so bad that the only way the murderer could pay for their sins was to be killed.

What pastor was murdered in Mexico? ›

A Roman Catholic priest has been killed in the western Mexican state of Michoacan, the ninth slain in the country in the past four years. The church's Catholic Multimedia Center identified the priest as Rev. Javier García Villafaña, who had been assigned to the Capacho parish in Huandacareo just one month earlier.

Are priests safe in Mexico? ›

The number of priests killed in Mexico in the last 15 years is even higher than in Nigeria, the African country renowned for violent attacks against Christians. And the figures for Colombia and Brazil tail only slightly behind that for Mexico.

Why did Mexico ban Catholicism? ›

Mexican liberals in power challenged the Catholic Church's role, particularly in reaction to its involvement in politics. The Reform curtailed the Church's role in education, property ownership, and control of birth, marriage, and death records, with specific anticlerical laws.

How long did the Mormons serve in the Mexican war? ›

The Mormon Battalion was the only religious unit in United States military history in federal service, recruited solely from one religious body and having a religious title as the unit designation. The volunteers served from July 1846 to July 1847 during the Mexican–American War of 1846–1848.

Do Mormons accept Mexicans? ›

“Many times I tell LDS people that I am Hispanic, and they respond that they went on missions in Latin America, and say that they missed the warmth of Mexico, or Chile, or they want to speak Spanish with me,” she said. “But our church welcomes anyone.

Who led the Mormons and was killed? ›

Joseph Smith, the founder and leader of the Latter Day Saint movement, and his brother, Hyrum Smith, were killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, United States, on June 27, 1844, while awaiting trial in the town jail. Part of anti-Mormon violence in the U.S. Carthage, Illinois, U.S.

What happened to the Mormons in 1846? ›

Their leader assassinated and their homes under attack, the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormons) of Nauvoo, Illinois, begin a long westward migration that eventually brings them to the valley of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.


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