Criminal investigators in northern Mexico say a suspect has been arrested and is under investigation for a possible connection with the deaths of nine family members — three women and six children — slaughtered Monday when cartel gunmen ambushed their vehicles.
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Agency for Criminal Investigation for the state of Sonora said Tuesday the suspect was found in the town of Agua Prieta, close to Arizona’s border, holding two hostages who were gagged and tied inside a white pickup truck.
The suspect, whose gender was not specified in the release, was also found in possession of four assault rifles and ammunition, as well as various large vehicles including a bullet-proofed SUV. One of the vehicles was connected with a robbery in Phoenix, Arizona.
Officials have said the gunmen might have mistaken the group’s large SUVs for those of a rival gang amid a vicious turf war.
“These acts in which women and children lost their lives makes it clear that we need a collaboration and a union of forces,” the statement said. “Criminality should be analyzed and combatted, not only in local protest, but also regional, national and transnational.”
The family’s vehicles were sprayed with gunfire on a road near Rancho La Mora in a remote and mountainous area where the Sinaloa cartel has been engaged in a turf war with another gang.
It remains unknown whether the anti-crime reputation of the victims’ extended family influenced the attack on Monday morning. The victims — all dual U.S.-Mexican citizens — were related to the LeBaron family, whose members have clashed with drug traffickers over the years. One of them, Benjamin LeBaron, was murdered by the cartels in 2009 after he founded neighborhood patrols against them.
“It’s devastating,” said relative Leah Staddon. “It’s incomprehensible, the evil. I don’t understand how someone could do that.”
Eight children survived the attack by hiding or running away, and at least five of them are receiving treatment for their injuries in Arizona. All are in stable condition, officials said.
Relatives credited Devin Blake Langford, 13, for walking 14 miles to get help after seeing gunmen shoot his mother and two brothers. Devin hid six of his other siblings in the bushes, relative Kendra Lee Miller wrote on Facebook, and covered them with branches before heading toward home.
He delivered the news to his uncles, who found five of Devin’s siblings in the hiding spot eight hours after the ambush. A 9-year-old girl had left to try to find help while waiting for Devin’s return. Search parties found the girl, Miller said, discovering she got lost and walked 10 miles.
An ambulance and helicopter later transported five of the injured siblings to hospitals. The uninjured children are with their aunts and grandmas, Miller said.
The victims, who lived in Sonora state, about 70 miles of Douglas, Arizona, belonged to a fundamentalist Mormon ranching community founded by people who separated long ago from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many separatists came to the region and left the church to continue practicing polygamy decades ago.
The LeBaron colony in the Mexican state of Chihuahua was founded in 1924 by Alma Dayer LeBaron, who brought his wives and children across the border, according to NBC News.
Sonora is considered a key location by the international drug trade and human trafficking network. It is labeled as a “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” by the U.S. State Department because of the risk of crime.
To show cartel gunmen she wasn’t a threat, Christina Langford Johnson allegedly jumped out of her SUV and waved her hands, relatives and prosecutors said. Officials found her body 15 yards away from her vehicle, and her 7-month-old daughter still in her car seat, uninjured.
Miller wrote on Facebook that the baby’s car seat “seemed to be put on the floor by her mother to try and protect her. … She gave her life to try and save the rest.”
The governor of Sonora, Claudia Pavlovich Arellano, said the attackers will not go unpunished.
Contributing: Daniel Gonzalez, The Arizona Republic; The Associated Press