The State Department warned Americans against traveling to the Mexican state of Sonora months before nine members of a family with dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship were killed there Monday.
Although the U.S. State Department has a level 2 travel advisory in place for the country of Mexico – calling for visitors to "exercise increased caution" – Sonora, which is just south of Arizona,, is listed as level 3 ("reconsider travel") on a four-level scale, along with its eastern neighbor, Chihuahua.
"Sonora is a key location used by the international drug trade and human trafficking networks," the State Department's most recent Mexican travel advisory, dated April 9, cautions. "However, northern Sonora experiences much lower levels of crime than cities closer to Sinaloa and other parts of Mexico."
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Sonora is also home to Puerto Peñasco. Also known as Rocky Point, it's a beach town popular with Arizona residents who are advised to drive there during daylight hours and use a certain border crossing.
The victims – members of La Mora, a decades-old settlement in Sonora state founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – were attacked near Rancho La Mora on the border between Sonora and Chihuahua, the Mexican newspaper El Diario reported.
The State Department travel advisory paints a bleaker picture for Americans' safety in Chihuahua, where "violent crime and gang activity are widespread." It adds, "While most homicides appear to be targeted assassinations carried out by criminal organizations, turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens. Bystanders have been injured or killed in shooting incidents."
Drug cartels have been engaged in a turf battle for control of Sonora. In fact, officials say suspects in the killings – one of whom was arrested near the Arizona border in the Sonoran town of Agua Prieta, with two hostages bound and gagged in a pickup truck – may have mistaken the family's large SUV for one belonging to the rival gang.
The Douglas, Arizona Police Department in Douglas, Arizona, issued a social media advisory earlier this week about traveling from the southeast Arizona border town into Mexico after reports of shots fired in Agua Prieta on Monday early morning.
"This morning, the Douglas Police Department received reports of sustained automatic gunfire in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico," read a Facebook post from Douglas police. Agua Prieta is located directly across the border from Douglas.
Sonora's governor, Claudia Pavlovich Arellano, condemned the attack on Twitter Tuesday, writing, "I don't know what kind of monsters dare to hurt women and children. As Governor, I will do everything to make sure this does not go unpunished and those responsible pay."
USA TODAY has reached out to Mexico's Ministry of Tourism for comment.
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Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson, Adrianna Rodriguez and Kristin Lam, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mexico travel: Americans warned against Sonora travel before killings