As It Happens

'It's just devastating,' says relative of 9 Americans killed in Mexico

Ruth Wariner says the attack that killed nine of her relatives on Monday has sent shockwaves through the entire Mormon community, and raised new fears for a family that has lived in the country for more than a century.

Police believe drug cartels are responsible for the deadly attack on members of a breakaway Mormon community

View of a sign in Galeana, Chihuahua state, Mexico. Gunmen attacked a Mormon family on a state highway near the border between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, near the border with the United States, killing 9 people, including 6 children. (Luis Torres/EPA-EFE)

Read Story Transcript

Ruth Wariner says the attack that killed nine of her relatives on Monday has sent shockwaves through the entire Mormon community, and raised new fears for a family that has lived in the country for more than a century.

Gunmen ambushed three SUVs along a dirt road at the border of Chihuahua and Sonora, killing at least six children and three women — all of them U.S. citizens living in northern Mexico.

Authorities say drug cartels are likely behind the attack, and the perpetrators may have mistaken the group's large SUVs for those of rival gangs.

Among those killed were Wariner's niece Rhonita Miller and her four children, including infant twins.

The victims were all members of the LeBaron family — also known as Colonia LeBaron — a breakaway Mormon community that settled in northern Mexico's hills and plains decades ago, and who have often faced violence at the hands of surrounding cartels. 

Wariner grew up in Colonia LeBaron, and later moved to Portland, Ore. She is no longer a Mormon, but keeps in touch with her family in Mexico. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

How is your family coping?

We're still shocked. It's horrific. We haven't had time to recover.

What do you know at this point as to what happened?

I heard from my brother who still lives in Colonia LeBaron, and what he has told me and what also I've read in the news is that my niece Rhonita was traveling in her car. She ended up having a flat tire and was on the side of the road, and was ambushed by a group of what we believe, and what authorities so far believe, are the Mexican drug cartels.

She was shot and killed and four of her children were shot with her, and they burned the car with her and her children inside of it.

There were two other mothers killed, cousins of mine, people that I haven't met, and three of their children, from my understanding.

Several children ran away. There have been a couple that have been found on the side of the road still living.

Ruth, I'm so sorry.

Thank you.

Video shared with Reuters showed images of a burned-out vehicle that may have belonged to an American family that was killed in Mexico. 0:31

Do you have any idea, I mean, why would a drug cartel want to target a group of Mormons traveling in a convoy?

My family has been targeted ... by the Mexican drug cartels through kidnappings of our children in the past.

About 10 years ago ... I found out that one of my nephews, another one of my nephews was kidnapped at gunpoint, and asked for my family for a $4-million ransom. My family didn't have that kind of cash and tried to negotiate with the kidnappers, and eventually a week later, they let the boy, the teenage boy, actually go.

But my family started to speak out against the drug cartels — not confronting them or trying to fight them — but just pleading with them to ... stop kidnapping their children.

My nephew Benji started to speak out ... at police academies and different parts government in Chihuahua to ask for help.

They didn't want to get in the way of any of the cartels' business. They wanted to be left alone there. Their wish is to live in peace with their families and to live, you know, the way that they were raised and in the communities that most of them were born in.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, left, and the secretary of public security Alfonso Durazo, right, participate in a press conference in Mexico City about the deadly attack on a Mormon family. (Sashenka Gutierrez/EPA-EFE)

And what would happen to Benjamin after he made these remarks?

Black SUVs came to his house. They called Benji out. He was at home with his wife and children and through the night they threw grenades into their house, broke into the house and assaulted his wife and took Benji with them.

His brother-in-law was a neighbour and came over to find out what was going on, and they ended up taking both of the gentlemen to our family's graveyard, hung them there and left a note of warning on it for our community to stop speaking out against the cartels.

A woman holds a picture of slain Mormon anti-crime activist Benjamin LeBaron, left, and his neighbour Luis Widmar, during their funeral service in 2009. (The Associated Press)

There's another relative, Julian LeBaron, who published an article in Dallas Morning News [in 2010] saying we must stand up to organized crime, we shouldn't back down. ... Did the family, this very large extended family ... ever think of maybe leaving Mexico because of all the violence?

My oldest full-blooded brother still lives in LeBaron and ... I asked him that question and he didn't have an answer.

Our grandfather started the community to have a safe place for people to live and to practice the religion the way that they wanted to live, to farm their lands, to create a peaceful community.

And now you're trying to learn what you can about this attack on your family from Portland. And, as you say, lots of questions still.

Some have said [it] might be a mistaken identity. It might be they were targeted. We don't know. But since you talked to your brother, what are they doing to keep themselves safe at this point?

I imagine right now they're working with the authorities to figure out what that's going to be, if it's going to be another, you know, military occupation to try to protect people. I know that there was 24-hour lookouts during the first time that this happened. 

I have no idea how they would take on the Mexican drug cartel. That's a big order for a more fundamentalist Mormon community.

As you know there's tremendous violence around the drug cartels and many people fear for their lives. But these are American colonies, aren't they?

They are American citizens.

And so the United States will get involved. We're hearing [U.S. President] Donald Trump is already tweeting about what co-operation the United States is going to offer, calling them monsters who did this. What can United States do at this point, do you think?

I think they have to have that conversation with the government in Mexico to see if that's going to be something that they want.

I mean, we lost Mexicans in our country to violence just a few months ago in El Paso, Texas. It's a different kind of violence and for different reasons. And I think that both governments should definitely be in conversation about what's going on, because these rows are coming to us, to the United States. We're the ones buying the drugs.

So should there be a conversation? Absolutely. And not just about the Mexican drug cartels, but our own role in the problem.

I don't know how that conversation would go. I mean, it's just devastating. Just devastating.

Written by Jeanne Armstrong and Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.