The horrific massacre of members of a U.S. family just over the Mexican border is shining a harsh spotlight on leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s strategy for fighting the nation’s powerful drug cartels, sparking renewed calls for a tougher strategy to combat the violent groups.
Even in a country that has grown wearily familiar with violence from the powerful cartels, the grisly nature of the attack riveted the country and inspired an unsolicited offer from President Trump of U.S. military aid in the fight against the killers.
Officials said three SUVs carrying a large family with dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship from a settlement founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were ambushed Monday in a remote mountain region in Sonora by gunmen suspected to be from a drug cartel. The attack, which may have been a case of mistaken identity, killed six children, including 8-month-old twins, and three women.
An emotional video, apparently taken by a family member of the victims, panned across the charred shell of the car pocked with dozens of bullet holes.
The victims had set out to visit relatives in Mexico. One woman was headed to the airport in Phoenix to meet her husband.
“This is for the record: Nita and four of my grandchildren were burnt and shot up. Right on the road,” the English-speaking video narrator said as he struggled to control his emotions. He apparently was referring to Rhonita Baron, one of the three women killed in the attack.
Several children who ran from the scene were found alive with bullet wounds and other injuries and were transferred to hospitals in Phoenix, authorities said. Mexican Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said Tuesday that eight people survived the attack but their conditions were unknown.
The attack is certain to increase the pressure on Mr. Lopez Obrador and his effort to implement a less-confrontational policy to fight the cartels. With a slogan of “Hugs, not bullets,” the president has advocated attacking the economic and social problems that have given rise to the drug gangs and lawlessness as a better long-term strategy.
Mexico’s security forces and military have complained that the policy has left them outgunned and constrained in confrontations with the violent cartels, leading to a series of bloody attacks and embarrassing defeats. On Oct. 14, 13 police officers were killed in the western state of Michoacan, and days later officers were forced to release the imprisoned son of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after cartel members surrounded the facility where he was being held.
That incident drew a rare rebuke from Mexico’s traditionally nonpolitical army when a retired senior officer complained publicly about the government’s approach.
“We’re worried about today’s Mexico,” Gen. Carlos Gaytan told a gathering of military officers last week. “We feel aggrieved as Mexicans and offended as soldiers.”
Trump’s offer of help
Adding to the pressure on Mr. Lopez Obrador, Mr. Trump on Tuesday offered Mexico the services of the U.S. military to clean out the drug cartel “monsters” who killed the members of the convoy.
“The cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!” Mr. Trump said in a post on Twitter. “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.”
But the idea of U.S. military aid is sensitive for Mexicans. Mr. Lopez Obrador quickly rejected the offer and again insisted that “waging war” on the cartels is not an option.
“We declared war, and it didn’t work,” he said, referring to the crackdowns by previous administrations in Mexico City.
Mr. Lopez Obrador campaigned last year on the argument that the best way to counter crime is to end corruption and combat poverty within the country, but it has been an uphill battle. Mexico scored a mere 28 points out of 100 in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, which matched Russia’s rating.
Mr. Lopez Obrador and Mr. Trump talked directly Tuesday afternoon about the attack and “efforts to combat the growing violent behavior of cartels and criminal groups in the region,” the White House said.
Mr. Trump again offered assistance “to ensure the perpetrators face justice.”
U.S. lawmakers urged the White House to provide more advanced security training for the Mexican police force, which many argue is woefully unable to combat the drug cartels.
“This is what happens when Mexico’s politicians look the other way and let drug cartels bribe their way to power,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican. “Mexico’s president hasn’t taken the threat seriously, and innocent American lives have been lost again. The Mexican government must partner with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to wage a full-scale offensive against these butchers.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, tweeted that he was “horrified by chilling, heinous murders of children by Mexican drug traffickers. [It is] long past time to redouble U.S.-Mexico efforts to combat violence, including stopping firearms trafficking & curbing U.S. drug demand.”
The Associated Press reported that the victims lived in Sonora state, about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona, in a small village called La Mora. The town was founded decades ago by an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many La Mora residents call themselves Mormons but are not affiliated with the church.
All of the victims were apparently related to the extended LeBaron family in Chihuahua, whose members have run afoul of the drug traffickers over the years, the AP report noted. Benjamin LeBaron, who founded neighborhood patrols to battle the cartels, was killed in 2009.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement offering prayers and condolences for the families of the attack, but a spokesperson said it is the church’s understanding that the victims “are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” The family members apparently belonged to an offshoot of the Utah-based faith that had established a settlement in northern Mexico.
A State Department travel warning for the area urges Americans to “reconsider” their destination.
Mr. Lopez Obrador said in a tweet that “through communication with Trump, I send my deepest condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed on the borders of Chihuahua and Sonora.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.