LA MORA, Mexico — Relatives from the United States and Mexico will begin the grim task on Thursday of burying the nine women and children slaughtered in an ambush in a mountainous area near the Sonora-Chihuahua border where rival cartels are fighting a vicious turf war.
Two funerals will take place Thursday in La Mora, a town in Sonora founded by fundamentalist offshoots of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A third funeral will take place on Friday in LeBaron, a fundamentalist offshoot community in neighboring Chihuahua.
Dawna Ray Langford, 43, will be buried in the first funeral at 10 a.m., along with two of her children killed in the attack: 11-year-old Trevor Harvey Langford, and 2-year-old Rogan Jay Langford, according to Kendra Lee Miller, a relative.
Rhonita Maria (LeBaron) Miller, 30, will be buried in a second funeral at 2 p.m., along with four of her children who were killed: 8-month-old twins, Titus Alvin Miller and Tiana Gricel Miller; and Krystal Bellaine Miller, 10; and Howard Jacob Miller Jr., 12.
A third funeral will take place Friday in Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua for Chistina Johnson, 33.
All three families belonged to a fundamentalist offshoot of the LDS church, and had dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship.
Family relative: 'I've never felt this kind of fear before going into Mexico'
Dozens of relatives of the slain family members from all over the United States gathered Wednesday in a Walmart parking lot in Douglas, Arizona. They then crossed over into Mexico to begin the three-hour drive to La Mora in a convoy of about a dozen vehicles guarded by heavily-armed Mexican solders and state police.
Emily Langford, a close relative of the victims, traveled from Utah to attend the funerals. She said she grew up in Mexico feeling safe but was afraid to return.
"This time, the fear is extreme," Langford said as she waited in Douglas for the convoy to disembark. "I've never felt this kind of fear before going into Mexico. I was born there, I grew up there. I lived in peace all of my life down there."
Langford blames the Mexican government for failing to rein in cartel violence, which since 2006 has claimed the lives of an estimated 250,000 people.
"I do believe it is the Mexican government's fault. I blame them entirely for not taking a stand a long time ago when other innocent lives were being taken," Langford said. "It angers me. I love the people of Mexico. There's so many good people here. They're so hospitable and loving. They don't deserve this. They need to be taken care of, and their president is not taking care of them."
The family's drive took hours, and though their escorts were well armed, it was a race against sundown to cover as much of the dirt road as possible before darkness fell.
After dark, the family convoy reached a relay point. Soldiers from Agua Prieta dropped away from the group and a new set of military escorts, already set up and waiting, replaced them in the caravan. A waxing moon and red taillights were the only glow on the landscape.
After 8 p.m., the family reached La Mora, where a checkpoint of a half-dozen military and police units was set up.
What happened in the Mexico ambush that killed 9 family members?
Mexico's president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, vowed Wednesday to bring those responsible for the killings to justice. But he steadfastly refused to return to the war on cartels carried out by previous administrations, which he said had failed.
"This has been shown not to work. It only leads to more violence," López Obrador said.
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Agency for Criminal Investigation said the attorney general for Sonora Claudia Indira Contreras Córdova met with some of the victims' relatives to reiterate her solidarity and promise them justice.
The three families were traveling in three separate vehicles from their homes in La Mora in Sonora to Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua when they were ambushed in two separate attacks by gunmen hidden in the mountains along a road that connects the two towns, Mexican authorities said.
Some relatives have said the families were on their way to a wedding. Others have posted messages on Facebook that said two of the mothers were on their way to visit relatives in LeBaron and the third mother was on her way to pick up her husband at the airport in Tucson.
The charred remains of Rhonita Maria Miller, 30, and four of her children were found inside a bullet-ridden Tahoe that exploded in flames during the attack.
Dawna Ray Langford, 43, was traveling in an SUV with her nine children, seven of whom survived the attack, including five who were wounded.
Christina Johnson, 33, was traveling in a third SUV with her baby when she was killed. The baby was found unharmed about 12 hours later after relatives launched a search after learning of the attacks from two of the older children who walked more than 10 miles back to La Mora, relatives said.
Mexican authorities said Wednesday they are investigating the possibility that cartel members may have mistook the three families as members of a rival cartel because the large SUVs they were driving resembled those used by criminal organizations.
Mexican authorities are investigating whether a suspect arrested Monday in Agua Prieta is connected to the ambush.