At a ranch in a wooded valley of northern Mexico, Howarth LeBaron gazes mournfully at his three surviving children. Days ago, they lost four of their siblings and their mother in a roadside massacre.
“There are no words for what happened to them,” he says, watching the children as they play with a toy unicorn and dinosaur. “There are no words.”
His wife Rhonita and four of her children were among nine victims killed on Monday in a hail of bullets in an attack authorities have blamed on a drug cartel.
They were driving in three cars on a rural road between Sonora and Chihuahua, a region bordering the United States.
As it prepared to start holding funerals for the victims on Thursday, this small community voiced grief and anger at the Mexican government.
They say a gang attacked them deliberately. The families have stood up in the past to the powerful drug cartels that control this lawless region.
‘Aspiring to peace’
Some 30 houses make up the small ranch community in a valley ringed with pines.
Military vehicles were patrolling nearby.
Within the grounds, some of the community’s everyday farming work went on as normal.
The families are part of a large group of US Mormons who emigrated to Mexico in the late 19th century, fleeing persecution for their traditions, including polygamy.
The Mormons at the ranch work harvesting nuts and pomegranates and also commute across the border to jobs in the United States.
“We are people who aspire to create peace and watch our families grow by living honestly,” one of the leaders of the community, Julian LeBaron, told reporters at the ranch.
The community leapt to prominence a decade ago when it publicly challenged the drug cartels over the kidnapping of a teenage member of the LeBaron family.
The military blamed the killings on a drug cartel called “La Linea.”
Mexico’s security minister Alfonso Durazo said the attack might have been a case of mistaken identity by gunmen meaning to target a rival gang.
“I don’t know what the mistake is supposed to have been,” said Julian LeBaron.
“They knew they were women and children and still they attacked them, and after attacking them they set them on fire.”
He accused the government of failing his community.
“No authority can be legitimate if it refuses to protect you by denying you the means of defense,” he said. “We do not accept such stupidity.”
Relatives broke down in tears on Wednesday as they viewed the charred shells of the cars in which their loved ones died.
Adrian LeBaron, the father and grandfather of some of the victims, said that according to two of the surviving children, their aunt had exited her SUV, arms raised in surrender, only to be mowed down by gunfire.
The victims, all women and children, had dual US-Mexican citizenship. The children ranged in age from eight months to 12 years.
Another child, a three-month-old baby, was found wounded but alive on the floor of one of the cars, where her mother had put her when the shooting began.
Eight children managed to escape, six of them wounded.
On Wednesday night, a caravan of 70 vehicles carrying other Mormons from Chihuahua arrived at the La Mora ranch for the funerals.
“We have come to honor their memory and to try to understand what is happening,” said the man at the head of the caravan, Alex LeBaron.
“The authorities have a responsibility to investigate and tell us what happened,” he said.
“This was an act of terrorism for all Mexicans.”