It was the worst act of violence against US citizens in Mexico since the beginning of the drug war in 2006: gunmen, believed to be members of a drug cartel, killed three women and six children Monday. All victims are descended from the LeBaron family. She lives in a Mormon community near the US border in northern Mexico, which has a total of more than 3000 members. Most residents have Mexican and US citizenship.
Apparently, the mothers – alone with their children on a remote road in three SUV on the road – have been ambushed. They died in a hail of bullets, then one of the cars caught fire. The victims, among them two babies, burned beyond recognition.
Eight children survived the attack, including a baby found in the arms of his dead mother. Six of the children were injured by gunfire. A 13-year-old boy who escaped helped them to hide among the bushes. Then he ran for about 22 kilometers to the next settlement to get help.
The crime is the latest in a series of mass murder and drug mafia attacks that have claimed dozens of lives in recent weeks. The escalation of violence is expected to be the bloodiest year since the drug war began in Mexico in 2019 – and it is causing more and more experts to question the Mexican government's gentle line with the drug cartels.
"The only limit to violence lies in the imagination of the murderers"
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to stick to his principle that "violence can not be dealt with forcefully" – he announced again in his morning press conference on Wednesday. The numbers seem to prove him right: since President Felipe Calderón sent the military into the fight against cartels in 2006, more than 250,000 people have died in the drug war.
Above all, the left-wing López Obrador wants to tackle the social causes of violence: youth unemployment and corruption, for which he blames his predecessors. "The policy of the last 36 years has failed in every respect," he says. However, his strategy will only be successful in the long term. The government is helpless in the face of the recent explosion of violence.
"If it is possible to kill babies, chase children and destroy families without causing an unusually strong reaction from the authorities, then there is only one conclusion," writes political scientist Alejandro Hope in the newspaper "El Universal": "The only limit to the violence lies in the imagination of the killers."
The cartels seem to use government restraint to demonstrate their power. Three weeks ago, dozens of Sinaloa cartel gunmen besieged Culiacán, the capital of the state, after police detained a son of US-arrested drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. To prevent a bloodbath, the government let the Chapo son run again.
Police and military appeared only hours after the crime scene
The region between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, where the Mormons live, is also controlled by drug gangs. It's a popular drug delivery route on the way to the US. Ten years ago, a group of criminals murdered two members of the community. Julián LeBaron, the brother of a murdered, then joined the protest marches of relatives of the victims of the drug war, became a nationally known activist.
His ancestors, a Mormon faction in the US, emigrated to Mexico 130 years ago because they were not persecuted here for polygamy as in their homeland. They grow nuts and other agricultural products, in Mexico they are highly regarded. However, there should have been a dispute with other residents about the water rights.
Since the murder of his brother, the government has granted police protection to the community, Julián LeBaron told Mexican media. But there was nothing to see on Monday. It was not the police who were the first on the scene, but the relatives. Only many hours after the massacre police and military appeared.
Targeted attack or fatal confusion?
Also unclear is the motive for the murders: Was it a targeted attack on the Mormons, because the cartels their peace activism did not fit? Or were the women and children victims of a fatal confusion, as the government assumed? A cousin of those killed claimed that the victims had been used by a drug cartel as bait to attract members of a rival gang.
Security Minister Alfredo Durazo argues that the Mormons were inadvertently caught between the fronts in the war between two rival gangs. The Sinaloa cartel, Durazo reported, is making strategically important drug routes for the area's ruling Juárez cartel.
The day before the massacre, an armed conflict had arisen in the border town of Agua Prieta between two local gangs of drug traffickers allied with the two great cartels. The allies of the Juárez cartel then sent a murder squad to the Mormon area to ward off a possible invasion of the Sinaloa allies' allies.
The killers confused the Mormon family with their rivals. The women and children traveled in large SUVs of the Chevrolet brand, "as they like to be used by the cartels," said Durazo.
Trump's help is not welcome
In the US, the massacre caused horror and disgust. At the same time, it reinforces fears that Mexico is becoming a "failed state", a "failed state". President Donald Trump has therefore offered López Obrador help in the fight against cartels. "If Mexico asks for help to destroy these monsters, the US is ready and able to intervene and do the work efficiently," he tweeted.
But that's exactly what López Obrador wants to avoid, he sees it as an attack on Mexico's sovereignty. He politely thanked Trump, assuring Mexico's institutions themselves were able to "establish justice."
So far, the Mexican has managed to avoid an open conflict with the powerful neighbor. Even in the election campaign, the left had renounced attacks against Trump. He returns the favor by treating López Obrador in a friendly way. In addition, the Mexican has met him in the migration policy.
The massacre of the Mormons could make this political standstill agreement obsolete. Trump's verbal attacks during the election campaign, when he slammed the Mexicans as rapists and "bad guys", are unforgotten.
Washington has some sense of responsibility for the explosion of violence in Mexico: The rapid-fire rifles used in the Mormon massacre come from the US – as well as 70 percent of all weapons seized during operations against the drug cartels. According to López Obrador, middlemen of the cartels preferred to buy them in Texas – where the gun laws would obviously be handled very laxly.