LA MORA, Mexico: Andre Miller saw the column of black smoke rising from almost two kilometres away. Moments later, he said, the boom erupted.
He charged up the road to find a sport utility vehicle engulfed in flames – the same one his sister-in-law, Rhonita Miller, had been driving with her four children. He watched in horror, unable to approach. The heat was too intense.
"I couldn't get any closer than 30 feet," said Andre Miller, 18. "I couldn't tell if they were inside the car or not."
Past the flames, he spotted three armed men racing away. It was 10.20am.
It was the first harrowing evidence that something had gone horribly wrong for the Mormon community in La Mora, a tiny hamlet of fruit and nut orchards tucked in a curtain of mountains in northern Mexico.
For the next 12 hours, the shattered family raced to find their loved ones and piece together a tragedy that has shocked the United States and the world at large: the massacre of three mothers and six of their children, including 8-month-old twins, on an isolated road that their families have travelled for decades.
One of the women was on her way to start a new life in North Dakota with her husband. Another planned to meet her spouse to celebrate their anniversary. A third was getting ready to attend a wedding.
But gunmen, staged along the ridgeline, were lying in wait for the passing vehicles.
In two separate ambushes separated by kilometres of rugged dirt road, they fired hundreds of rounds of ammunition, from hundreds of metres away, sweeping in from the knuckled hills.
The SUV in which Rhonita Miller and four of her children were killed. Credit:The New York Times
Spent shell casings at the first ambush site showed the path of the assassins as they closed in with assault rifles, firing as they descended the scrub-covered hill to the road.
The authorities said the attack appeared to be a devastating case of mistaken identity, launched by a cartel that mistook the family for a rival gang. If the government's early version is accurate, the killings stemmed from little more than bad luck – driving in a dangerous area in large SUVs generically similar to those used by organised crime.
For all the years that the drug war has ravaged Mexico, a common refrain has often been used to make sense of the unthinkable toll, repeated by government officials, members of law enforcement and many Mexicans themselves: that the violence mostly claims the lives of criminals, of those involved in the ruthless underworld, of those who walk the wrong path.
But the killings here in Eastern Sonora obliterated that argument in the most brutal way.
Even in a nation as plundered by violence as Mexico, which is suffering its deadliest year in more than two decades, the murder of innocent mothers and children has stripped away any pretence that the mayhem is largely calculated, targeted and therefore contained.
In Mexico and abroad, it has cut through the collective numbness to the violence and given a new face to the homicide crisis – in no small part, relatives say, because they are a prominent family made up of many American citizens.
Mexican military patrol in La Mora, where the Mormon community are holding the funeral for those killed by drug cartel gunmen.Credit:AP
"This case has exploded simply because of who we are," said Kenneth Miller, Rhonita Miller's father-in-law.
He nodded toward the main road into the community, where soldiers guarded the entrance. "Why should our family have these soldiers around us for protection when other people have nothing?"
He rattled off a few recent homicide victims in the area, none of them Mormon, and the widows and orphans they left behind. He felt differently about them now.
"The only people that hear their cries is God in heaven," he said. "I feel it more now, because it hits home."
As funeral services for some of the victims began on Thursday, members of the family were still questioning the government's narrative of the attack. Officials and investigators have said that the shooting caused Rhonita Miller's vehicle to blow up, incinerating her and four of her children with a heat so intense that there was little left but charred bone, the vehicle's gray husk and hardened pools of chrome melted from the blaze.
Family members embrace during the funeral service for Dawna Langford and her two children, Trevor and Rogan.Credit:New York Times
But in the hours after the ambush, family members said they found scattered bits of evidence tossed outside of the SUV, like Rhonita Miller's chequebook, suggesting that the gunmen had rummaged through the vehicle first – perhaps in an effort to see who they had killed – before setting it ablaze.
The senseless loss of life poses an existential crisis for Mexico and its President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
In recent weeks, a wave of disasters has forced the issue into the public eye with relentless consistency: the murder of 14 police officers in a single episode; a separate firefight that left 15 dead; an entire city placed under siege in broad daylight by nearly 400 gunmen from the Sinaloa Cartel – the criminal group once led by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo. In that case, the cartel completely overwhelmed the Mexican government's forces, taking eight of their members hostage and forcing them to let Guzmán's son go free.
Tyler Johnson, right, whose wife, Christina Langford Johnson, was among those killed in an ambush, embraces a family member.Credit:New York Times
Agony, and fear of more
Andre Miller raced back home to tell his family what he had seen. At the time, he didn't know whether Rhonita Miller had made it out of the SUV with her children.
Men gathered to rush to the scene. They stopped near the undulating dirt road that leads over rugged mountains into the state of Chihuahua, fearful of what lay ahead. Andre Miller had told his father about the gunmen, and the chance of another ambush couldn't be ignored.
Nearby, members of a local cartel they knew, Los Salazar, began to gather as well. After the murder of two family members in 2009, the Mormon community had learned to coexist with the local cartel members. It purchased fuel from them – an arrangement more forced than agreed upon – and the two sides maintained a largely peaceful, if uncomfortable, arrangement.
The local cartel members had heard the explosion as well. And they knew a possible reason for the attack – their rivals from Chihuahua had crossed into their territory to stake a claim.
After waiting for reinforcements, the members of Los Salazar took off down the road, heading toward the site of the ambush. The Mormons followed.
As the local cartel raced up the road to confront its enemies, the family stopped at the SUV's smouldering frame, where the remains of Rhonita Miller and her children were scarcely recognisable.
The hill from which gunmen fired into Rhonita Miller's car.Credit:The New York Times
Mrs Miller’s car was destroyed by fire.Credit:The New York Times
Social media began to light up as family members shared the tragic news on WhatsApp and posted videos to Twitter, pleading for help. Along the road through the mountains, cell reception is spotty at best. Within a few hours, the family was in a panic, worried about the other SUVs in Rhonita Miller's convoy. They had set out from La Mora shortly after 9am. and hadn't been heard from since.
Relatives called the US Embassy, the federal police, offices of two state attorneys general and the Mexican military, leveraging any connections they could to mount a rescue.
By late afternoon, Julian LeBarón and his father formed a search party and took off from the community of LeBarón, about a 3½-hour drive, hoping to intercept the women from the opposite end of the road.
It is unclear what time the second ambush – on the two vehicles carrying Christina Langford Johnson, Dawna Langford and their children – occurred. The government says it happened around 11am, perhaps an hour or more after Rhonita Miller was ambushed. By that time, the other mothers and children were about 18 kilometres ahead of her.
The road narrowed as it climbed steeply. To the left, a dense wall of mud rose into the hillside. To the right, a ravine plunged to the floor of a narrow valley before rising into a towering mountain.
The location seemed chosen for its vulnerability. An attack could not easily be defended – or escaped. As the women barrelled up the road, their vehicles were easy targets.
From a few hundred metres away, gunmen unleashed a fusillade on the SUV driven by Dawna Langford, who was travelling with her nine children. Bullet holes riddled the windshield and passenger's side. A young child was shot across the chest, another in the arm. Another boy was shot in the jaw.
Two of her children, Trevor, 11 and Rogan, 3, died in the onslaught.
Christina Johnson, travelling alone with her infant daughter, was struck down by gunfire. She fell not far behind the vehicle, according to images shared by the family.
Her baby remained inside, covered by a blanket, unharmed.
The account of the events was assembled from a range of sources – visits to the sites of both ambushes, a review of WhatsApp messages and voice memos sent between relatives, and interviews with more than a dozen family members, among them witnesses to the wreckage and, later, the rescue.
It is unclear whether the gunmen stopped shooting and allowed the children to escape after they shot Christina Johnson – having realised the vehicles were not filled with rivals – or whether they simply missed the children.
Evelyn Langford, 13, Christina's youngest sister, plays with Faith, Christina's daughter who survived the ambush.Credit:The New York Times
The gunmen fled soon after, racing off the mountainside, while the children hid in the brush. Led by the eldest son, Devin Langford, 13, they slipped out of the vehicle and dashed into the ravine for cover, hiding beneath the low-hanging trees that clung to its side.
Devin told the six others, including his sister McKenzie, that he was going to walk back to La Mora to tell the adults what happened. The journey is tough by road, with large stones and loose, silty earth, troubling the journey for even four-wheel drive vehicles. By foot and off the road, as Devin traveled, it is staggeringly difficult – at least 24 kilometres of ravines lined with thorny bramble and loose rock.
The boy walked the entire way, arriving in La Mora sometime after 5pm, according to the family. They formed a search crew and raced to the site where the missing children were hidden.
The rescue team from LeBarón eventually arrived at the ambush site shortly after 7pm. They found both mothers dead: Dawna Langford in the driver's seat, slumped over the steering wheel, and Christina Johnson by the back of the car, in a T-shirt and jeans.
"She was shot with her hands in the air," LeBarón said.
Bullet holes in the vehicle driven by Dawna Langford, who was killed along with two of her children in the ambush.Credit:The New York Times
The group from La Mora soon caught up. Devin, having witnessed his mother and two brothers perish in the gunfire, came along as a guide.
When the group arrived, it discovered five of the children alive. But McKenzie Langford, 9, was not there – she had followed her brother to warn the families.
The men searched late into the night, tracking her footprints. She was missing a left shoe, leaving a distinctive pattern that alternated between bare foot and running shoe.
They eventually found her off the road, alive, in the dark. The men cried with relief.
A broken home
The family members cleared the bodies, pulling them from the vehicles and taking them back to La Mora for burial. Even after the authorities showed up and scoured the ambush sites days later, relatives still found what investigators had missed: spent bullet casings and McKenzie's lost shoe, which the officials had run over on the drive to the crime scene.
In a large, hangar-size woodshop, the family built coffins and hosted a group of soldiers and marines sent there for protection.
Two of the husbands of the deceased sat on couches in one home, wrapped in blankets, their faces swollen and eyes blank. Their children played on the floor with stuffed animals and toys, as the family ate fried eggs, hash browns and toast.
Devin Langford, 13, right, sits by the coffin of his brother, Trevor, who was 11.Credit:New York Times
La Mora had been tarnished for the men. Rhonita Miller's husband, Howard, wanted to bury his wife hours away in LeBarón. So did Christina Johnson's husband, Tyler, wondering if he could stomach La Mora any longer.
The family had just held a goodbye party for Christina Johnson in the same home. She had decided to leave La Mora to join Tyler, who lived in North Dakota. Though she loved raising their children in La Mora – in the country, surrounded by high-definition views of uninterrupted landscape – they missed living together.
The next day, she headed out toward LeBarón to start the process of moving. The women discussed the fear of the road, and agreed to ride together in a convoy for safety.
In general, they figured they were safe – the local cartel knew them. Sometimes, its members would even come off the mountain to help them change flat tires. And besides, they needed to go. They had family business to attend to.
Her grandmother, Virginia Sedgwick, who divided time between La Mora and Utah, watched her dash back and forth, brimming with excitement.
Three times, she came and hugged Sedgwick, she recalled, telling her how much she loved her, and how happy she was to be moving to a beautiful new place, to live with her husband, who worked in the oil industry.
"And she did go to a beautiful place," she said. "The sorrow I feel is that I won't see her again for now."
The New York Times
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