Child survivors of massacred family spent 10 hours hiding in Mexican hills


Devin Langford, 13, hid his six surviving siblings while he walked 23km to get help after gunmen killed nine close relatives

Alone on a remote mountain road after witnessing the slaughter of nine close relatives, the wounded children who had survived a cartel ambush in northern Mexico then endured 10 hours hiding in the barren landscape as they waited for help.

One of the survivors, 13-year-old Devin Langford, hid his six surviving siblings in bushes near the road, and set out walking to raise the alarm.

But when he failed to return – and with night drawing over the mountainside – his nine-year-old sister McKenzie, headed into the wilds in search of him – even though she had been shot in the wrist.

Shocking new details of the attack in which three women and six children were killed emerged on Wednesday, making plain the horror unleashed on the Mexican-American Mormon family – and piling fresh pressure on Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to confront organized crime.

“Our cry for help is being listened to now,” Adrián LeBarón, father of Rhonita LeBarón and grandfather of four of the children killed, told the Televisa network on Wednesday. “My feeling, though, is that if we hadn’t gone to the place it happened – if we hadn’t shouted and talked – then the bodies would still be there.”

LeBarón was speaking from the community of La Mora near the border between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua where he was preparing funeral services for the murdered members of the family who mostly belong to a breakaway branch of the Mormon religion.

The three women and their 14 children from the Langford, Miller and Johnson families were traveling in three SUVs from a small village in Sonora to meet relatives in neighboring Chihuahua state.

LeBarón’s daughter and her four children were all in a Chevrolet Tahoe which was attacked at 9.40am on Monday, the Mexican army’s chief of staff said on Wednesday.

Members of the LeBarón family look at the burned car where some of the nine murdered relatives were killed during the ambush. Photograph: Hérika Martínez/AFP via Getty Images

Gen Héctor Mendoza said all five were killed immediately and the vehicle burst into flames. The two other vehicles were attacked 18 kilometers up the unpaved road at around 11am.

Lafe Langford – a relative of the victims – told CNN that the occupants of the second car saw that the lead vehicle had been attacked and knew they were in danger.

“They started grabbing the babies and trying to hide them – and all of a sudden bullets just rained down from above,” he said. “Once the firing stopped, these men came down off the mountain and pulled all the kids out of the vehicle and basically told them to get out of there.”

The children managed to walk about 300 meters, taking turns to carry their eight-year old brother Cody, who had been shot in the jaw and the leg, before they decided to take cover, he said.

After hiding the younger children, Devin, who was unharmed, then walked 23 kilometers back to his village to get help.

At first the search parties were driven back by further gunfire. By the time they reached the site with an army escort, it was well after dark and the terrified and wounded children still there had been left alone for 10 hours. The rescuers also found an unharmed seven-month-old baby still in her carseat.

McKenzie, who had set out to find Devin and walked 10 miles before getting lost in the dark, was not found until several hours later.

At Wednesday’s press conference Gen Mendoza said the initial investigation suggested that the family had been unwittingly caught in a turf battle between the La Línea cartel, based in Chihuahua, and a branch of the Sinaloa cartel, known as the Salazar, based in Sonora.

Chihuahua state police officers man a checkpoint in Janos. Photograph: Christian Chavez/AP

Relatives, however, point out that their vehicles were well known in the area, and that one of the mothers was killed after she got out of the car with her hands above her head.

“I don’t see how that can be confusion,” Adrián LeBarón said in Wednesday’s interview.

The attack was the latest of a string of mass killings which have tested President López Obrador’s “hugs not bullets” strategy of tackling the social roots of crime instead of confronting the cartels head-on.

After the murder of US citizens, Donald Trump called on López Obrador to launch a “war” against the cartels, but the massacre also prompted criticism from the Mexican left.

Film star Gael García Bernal, who endorsed López Obrador in the run-up to his landslide election victory last year, tweeted on Tuesday that the president “must change the narrative” or “Why the hell did we vote for you?”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a press conference in Mexico City on Wednesday. Photograph: Sáshenka Gutiérrez/EPA

The president, widely known as Amlo, argues that the clumsy militarized strategy attempted by his predecessors underpins the violence lacerating Mexico today, but he is also extremely keen to keep his relationship with Trump on good terms.

On Wednesday, he tried to reconcile those two urges, saying that those calling for a tougher line against the cartels were indulging in “fascist thinking” – but going out of his way to not only thank Trump for his offers of help, but to also thank him for not trying to impose them.

“He didn’t say ‘we are thinking of sending a team to Mexico’ but ‘We are here to help if you want us to,” López Obrador said. “That is something we are very grateful for.”

However, he stopping short of endorsing Trump’s rhetoric. “It’s unfortunate, sad, because children died. This is painful,” López Obrador said. “But trying to resolve this problem by declaring a war? In our country, it’s been shown that this doesn’t work. This was a disaster.”

In his interview with CNN, Langford stressed that the experience of his family was all too familiar to many in Mexico – a country which now sees nearly 100 murders a day. “These things have happened to people throughout Mexico for years, and they’ve never had the voice or support that we have,” he said.

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