ST. GEORGE — Families who have lost loved ones in a deadly ambush in Mexico are searching for answers and reaching out to their local communities for support.
On Monday, three mothers and 14 children left in three separate vehicles from their farm in a Sonora, Mexico, community called La Mora. Two families were going to visit with family in Chihuahua, Mexico, and one of the mothers was heading to Phoenix, Arizona, to pick up her husband from the airport. Miles away from the farm, however, the vehicles were ambushed.
As a result, nine U.S. citizens have been confirmed dead, including three mothers and six children. Eight additional children, including an 8-month-old infant, have been found after hiding in the trees for hours, and some are receiving medical attention from gunshot wounds.
“Some of them are worse than we thought, so we are praying that they’re surgeries go well,” said Tiffany Langford, whose aunts and cousins were injured and killed during the ambushes.
Langford told St. George News the families were in Sonora for a number of weddings. The families travel between the U.S. and Mexico frequently, she said, and maintain dual citizenship between the two nations.
On their most recent trip, however, before the families could reach their destinations, Mexican cartel members sprayed bullets into the first vehicle, where 30-year-old Rhonita Maria Miller and four of her seven children were traveling. After shooting into the car – killing some and injuring others – the cartel members lit the car on fire, burning everything. Family arrived on scene to find the car still smoking, bits of bone and ash mixed with melted metal.
The other two vehicles sped off in attempt to get to safety but were met with a second ambush 10 miles ahead, Langford said. Cartel members at the second ambush location fired into the two remaining vehicles that carried 31-year-old Christina Marie Langford Johnson with her infant daughter and 43-year-old Dawna Ray Langford with her nine children.
According to a GoFundMe page set up to support the families, Christina exited the vehicle, waving her arms and informing the cartel members that there were only women and children inside the vehicles. She was shot and killed along with two of her sons and Dawna Ray Langford.
Tiffany Langford said Miller’s brother-in-law, Andre Miller, heard and saw the explosion of Rhonita Miller’s car bursting into flames only 20-30 minutes away from the family’s farm. Andre and members of his family ran to the explosion and witnessed the vehicle involved in a fire that was burning too hot for them to get near.
Unable to find anyone near the car and seeing the bullet holes, they rushed back to the farm, fearing that the cartel members might still be hiding nearby, Langford said.
He called members of the traveling families, but none of the three women were answering their phones. The family began to worry that all of the mothers and children were dead or kidnapped.
“We were just praying and hoping,” Langford said. “We were not really believing that it could be as bad as it was. Maybe she jumped in with somebody else, maybe some people were just being delinquents and they shot it up – maybe it broke down. We were just trying to think the best of everything.”
In all of the chaos, 13-year-old Devin Blake Langford — who had watched cartel members kill his mother, Dawna — took his six siblings and hid them in the trees, covering them with branches before making his way to La Mora for help.
The boy walked 15 miles and arrived in La Mora six hours after the ambush. However, after he did not return to the site of the ambush, 9-year-old Mckenzie Rayne Langford, who had been shot in the arm, went on her own to search for help.
Rhonita Miller and her children — 12-year-old Howard Jacob Miller, 10-year-old Krystal Bellaine Miller and 8-month-old twins Titus Alvin Miller and Tiana Gricel Miller — were found shot and burned in their vehicle. Miller’s parents are watching over the remaining three children until her husband arrives from North Dakota.
Christina Marie Langford Johnson was also shot and killed but not before setting her 8-month-old daughter Faith Marie Johnson in her car seat on the floor of the vehicle to protect her from the bullets. Faith was found at the scene uninjured.
Dawna Ray Langford, who has family in Cedar City, and her two sons — 11-year-old Trevor Harvey Langford and 2-year-old Rogan Jay Langford — were also shot and killed in their vehicle. Dawna’s seven remaining children, including the two who went in search of help, survived the ambush. Of the seven children, ranging in age from 8 months to 14 years, only 6-year-old Jake Ryder Langford was uninjured.
Tiffany Langford said that she doesn’t believe early reports of the shooting being a case of mistaken identity are correct.
“We’ve been hearing a lot of ‘They got caught in the crossfire of a shooting,'” she said. “No, they knew that it was women and children. Dawna begged them and said, ‘No, we have children in here.'”
She said no matter the reason, the men responsible are cruel, but it is so much worse knowing they used innocent women and children to “prove a point” or “start a war.”
In the past, the families have maintained rather strict rules for themselves when traveling in Mexico, she said, especially attempting to avoid driving at night and always having men accompany women when outside of the farm. This time, however, the women were traveling alone, potentially feeling comfortable enough to do so because they left at midday.
Since the ambush, there have been reports of shootings and fights between the Sonoran and Chihuahua cartels. The family has been told that the Chihuahua cartel is at fault after investigation.
The Sonoran cartel protects the Sonora area from competing cartels and were present at the scene of the vehicle fire when Andre Miller arrived, Langford said, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t also be responsible.
“We have little more reason to trust the Sonora Mafia more than the Chihuahua,” she said. “When it comes right down to it, you can never trust a member of the Mafia. They turn on their own all the time. They are ruthless and murderous people, but they’ll be friends with you if you’re not bothering them.”
According to a report from The Associated Press, President Donald Trump offered Mexico’s government unspecified help to “wage war” on drug cartels Tuesday morning.
“This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth. We merely await a call from your great new president!” Trump said in a series of tweets addressing the tragedy.
Trump added that the U.S. government stands ready to get involved. He said that Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made fighting drug cartels a top issue.
“But the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!”
López Obrador has favored a less militaristic approach to the problem, saying a policy of frontal confrontations by his predecessors led only to more violence.
Langford said the families are currently in the process of trying to get more information from authorities while attempting to make funeral arrangements, unsure if they are able to have funerals in Mexico due to the unsafe nature of the area. Langford said the family is considering holding candle-light vigils to show support and celebrate the lives of the family they have lost.
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