World

Children who survived Mexico ambush showed bravery amidst horror

The eight children, some mere infants, who survived an ambush in northern Mexico not only escaped the drug cartel gunmen who killed their mothers but managed to hide in the brush, with some walking many kilometres to get help despite grisly bullet wounds.

13-year-old walked about 22.5 km to get help after 9 people killed

The remains of a car where part of the nine murdered members of the LeBaron family were killed during an ambush by gunmen in the Sonora mountains, Mexico, on Monday. (Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images)

The eight children, some mere infants, who survived an ambush in northern Mexico not only escaped the drug cartel gunmen who killed their mothers but managed to hide in the brush, with some walking many kilometres to get help despite grisly bullet wounds.

Kendra Miller, a relative, said in an account of the shootings that Devin Blake Langford, 13, was one of the few uninjured young people and quickly took charge, eventually walking about 22.5 kilometres in the remote, mountainous area of Sonora state back to the hamlet of La Mora for help.

One woman reportedly stashed her baby on the floor of her Suburban and got out of the vehicle, waving her arms to show the gunmen she wasn't a threat. She may have moved away from the vehicle to distract their attention; her bullet-ridden body was found about 13 metres from the SUV. 

The mother was one of nine U.S. citizens — three women and six children, all living in northern Mexico — killed Monday when gunmen opened fire on three SUVs along a dirt road in an attack that left one vehicle a burned-out, bullet-riddled hulk.

"After witnessing his mother and brothers being shot dead, Devin hid his six other siblings in the bushes and covered them with branches to keep them safe while he went for help," according to the account. "When he took too long to return, his nine-year-old sister left the remaining five to try again."

That girl, Mckenzie Rayne Langford, walked for hours in the dark before she was found several hours after the other children were rescued. She was listed as missing for a while.

Watch as family members inspect a burnt-out car belonging to Americans killed in Mexico:

Gunmen killed nine women and children in the bloodiest attack on Americans in Mexico for years. 1:01

The children were on their own from about 1 p.m. MT, when the ambush began, until about 7:30 p.m., when they were rescued. Relatives from La Mora tried to reach them before that, but were turned back by gunfire. The area is the site of a cartel turf war.

The five seriously wounded children were flown by Mexican authorities to the border in a military helicopter, to receive hospital care in the United States. Sonora state health officials said they were "stable" at the moment of transfer. Three other children who were not wounded were in the care of family members in La Mora.

May have mistaken SUVs for rival gang

Mexican officials said the attackers may have mistaken the group's large SUVs for those of a rival gang. The Juarez drug cartel and its armed wing, known as La Linea — or The Line — are fighting a vicious turf war against a faction of the Sinaloa cartel known as the Salazar.

"Those who attacked the occupants [of the vehicles], they let the children go, so that we can deduce that it was not a targeted attack" against the families, said army chief of staff Gen. Homero Mendoza.

Mendoza said the ambush consisted of two attacks more than an hour apart at two places along the road. He said that at 9:40 a.m. local time a Chevy Tahoe was hit by bullets and exploded in flames, and at 11 a.m., two Suburbans — one carrying the mother and her baby — were hit by gunfire.

The nearest army units were in the border city of Agua Prieta, about 160 kilometres and 3½ hours away, Mendoza said. Soldiers didn't start out for the scene until 2:30 p.m. and didn't arrive until 6:15 p.m. — even while five surviving children lay hiding in the mountains with bullet wounds.

"There are areas where the government's control is very fragile," said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope.

Officials also said a suspect who was arrested in Agua Prieta with assault rifles was not involved in the killings. Alfonso Durazo, a public security official, said Wednesday that preliminary information indicates that the suspect who was detained Tuesday is not linked to the attack.

Criminal investigators in northern Mexico earlier said the suspect was under investigation for a possible connection to the killings.

In recordings of calls between the rescuers, they can be heard debating whether it was better to risk more lives or wait an hour or two until Mexican army troops arrived. It was an agonizing decision.

What authorities saw when they found the children was terrifying.

Cody Greyson Langford, 8, had been shot in the jaw and bled profusely. Another girl had been shot in the foot and the back.

'This sort of thing shouldn't go unnoticed'

But it's not the cruelty of the cartel, but the bravery, innocence and sacrifice of the victims that relatives want remembered.

Austin Cloes, a relative of the victims, said from his home in Salt Lake City that they were good people who loved their children and enjoyed their quiet lives based around a successful pecan farming operation.

Members of the National Guard patrol on Tuesday after members of an American Mormon community were killed during an ambush in Bavispe, Sonora mountains, Mexico. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

"This sort of thing shouldn't go unnoticed," said Cloes, who works with at-risk youth and coaches high school basketball. "And these sorts of people shouldn't just be buried without their names being put out there. These are great people."

The dead in the attacks included a mother, her eight-month-old twins, and her 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. Another mother lay dead in the front seat of another Suburban, along with the bullet-riddled bodies of her sons, ages 11 and 2.

The victims lived in Sonora state, about 110 kilometres south of Douglas, Ariz., in the hamlet of La Mora, which was founded decades ago by an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. La Mora residents tend to call themselves Mormons, but are not affiliated with any church.

A number of such American farming communities are clustered around the Chihuahua-Sonora state border. Members include those born in Mexico who have dual citizenship.

All the victims were apparently related to the extended LeBaron family in Chihuahua, whose members have run afoul of drug traffickers over the years. Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who founded neighbourhood patrols against cartels, was killed in 2009.

The victims had set out to visit relatives in Chihuahua. One woman was headed to the airport in Phoenix to meet her husband.

While a drug-related violence has been raging for years in Mexico, the attack underscored the way cartel gunmen have become increasingly unconcerned about killing children as collateral damage:

  • In August in Chihuahua state, cartel gunmen fired 123 bullets at a man and also killed three girls ages 4, 13 and 14.
  • In June, a young boy was killed along with his father in Sonora state.
  • In July, a 10-year-old was killed during a robbery in Puebla state.

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