The brutal killing of three American women and six children a week ago in Mexico sparked outrage on both sides of the border. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised justice, and already set up a special task force to find the attackers. President Donald J. Trump, meanwhile, has suggested American troops be sent in to combat the rising tide of violence.
Rhetoric aside, some important facts remain in doubt, with social media and tabloids generating increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories. The day after the killing, the New York Post, for instance, reported that members of the victims’ community may have been recruited in the past by the NXIVM sex cult, although what, if anything, that might have to do with the murders remains unclear.
What we do know is that gunmen claimed the lives of nine members of the LeBaron family. Six other children traveling in the ambushed convoy were wounded and some of them have given their families accounts of what they saw, apparently confirming the thesis the gunmen knew perfectly well that they were slaughtering women and children.
The big unanswered question is not just who did the killing, but even more important in a land rife with sicarios and vendettas, why?
We also know the LeBarons are part of a wealthy and locally powerful sect of about 5,000 Mormon landowners with both U.S. and Mexican citizenship. Long isolated from their religious counterparts in the U.S., and in some cases allegedly continuing to practice polygamy, banned by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints centered in Salt Lake City, the LeBarons reside on several large ranches in the border states of Sonora and Chihuahua. Their houses resemble those in any well-manicured gated community in the United States.
On the morning of Nov. 4, three SUVs carrying 17 family members set out from their La Mora compound in Sonora for another ranch property in Galeana, in neighboring Chihuahua. Less than halfway there they were ambushed by unknown gunmen on a lonely stretch of road in that rugged scrubland.
The official version of the story, as told by Mexican authorities, is that it was an accident involving rival drug gangs. Yet the LeBarons claim they’d been under threat from criminal bands in the area and they have no doubt they were targeted deliberately. Several of the victims reportedly were shot at point-blank range.
Also, we now know the family had been engaged in a long-running land dispute with local farmers over water rights. Both sides appear to have acted violently—including an incident last year in which the farmers stormed one of the LeBaron ranches and the LeBarons opened fire on them. The conflict reportedly has continued since then.
The murder of innocent women and children would be a grotesque escalation—and without precedent—but to understand the broader context of the killings in that arid landscape the issue of water, as well as the issue of drug trafficking, should be taken into account.
In the immediate aftermath of the killings, Mexican officials announced that an organized crime group called Los Jaguares was responsible. The theory was that the group’s leader Arvizu “El Jaguar” Márquez had ordered the hit after mistaking the Mormon caravan for that of another gang. The press ran with the story, and it seemed the case was solved.
El Jaguar’s outfit is a splinter cell of the Sinaloa Cartel, formerly run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and now headed by a loose coalition between his sons and former lieutenant Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada (more on him later). Breakaway upstart Jaguar Márquez was characterized in news reports as “an alcoholic cuckold,” and one member of the LeBaron family spoke of possibly forming autodefensas [vigilante groups] to track him down.
But then the official version changed. It wasn’t the drunken gangster with the unfaithful wife after all. Instead another band was blamed, although the “cartel confusion” narrative carried over. This time the massacre was attributed to a dust up between a group called La Línea [The Line], which is affiliated with the Juárez Cartel, and a rival faction of the Sinaloa Cartel called Los Salazar.
There had been a turf battle between the two groups in the town of Agua Prieta, on the U.S. border, the same day the LeBaron family was assaulted. While retreating from Agua Prieta, La Línea allegedly set up sentinels to intercept any pursuers. And then the LeBaron convoy blundered into the trap traveling in SUVs, the preferred mode of transport for sicarios (hitmen) as well.
“It is assumed that this cell [La Línea ], which was sent to stop any incursion of a criminal group from Los Salazar into Chihuahua, [is responsible for] the attacks on the LeBaron family," said Homero Mendoza Ruíz, chief of staff of Mexico’s National Defense Secretariat, in a press conference.
However there are glaring discrepancies in the official reports. Mexico's secretary of security, Alfonso Durazo, believes the women set out at around 9:40 a.m. and came under attack at 1:00 p.m. But a special commission ordered by Mexican President López Obrador tells a different story. Those investigators claim there was an initial attack on one vehicle at 9:40, near the remote village of Bavispe. And that the second assault against the other two SUVs came at about 11:00 that same morning, and happened on the same rural highway, but 11 miles away from the scene of the first attack.
“What makes the incident highly suspect is the 1.2 hour time gap between the first incident and the second one, and the fact that it would be relatively easy to ID the unarmed female drivers—as well as the small children in the vehicles—as not being representative of cartel tactical unit profiles,” Robert Bunker, a specialist in international security and illicit economies at the University of Southern California, told The Daily Beast in an email.
Bunker suggested that the way the murders were carried out indicates the cartel hit teams, if that’s who was responsible, “were marginally trained and disciplined and/or even high on narcotics. Such tactical units could belong to a newly fragmented cartel group who were scraping the bottom of the barrel to put gunmen into the field.”
Bunker’s description of a poorly trained, ragtag bunch doesn’t meet the description of La Línea, however. It is known as the elite enforcer wing of the Juárez Cartel, and the DEA estimates some 70 percent of the cocaine that enters the U.S. passes through the Juárez-El Paso corridor, which this cartel controls, making it an extremely well-armed, well-equipped syndicate.
Furthermore, some of the children who escaped reported that at least one of the adult women had exited the vehicles to inform their attackers that they were traveling with children, only to be shot point blank.
“The conclusion we’ve reached is that it was something premeditated against the community,” Adrián LeBaron told a local news outlet. “They knew that they were killing women and children.”
In a separate interview, LeBaron also said the family had been receiving threats from armed groups in the area, and other members of the family have been kidnapped and killed by the cartels.
Some 200 shell casings from AR-15 type assault rifles were found at the scene of the ambush, and one of the vehicles had been burned, also possibly indicating an intentional encounter meant to send a message.
The targeted attack theory might be the more credible, at least based on what we know now—but it still doesn't explain why the family would have been targeted.
One possibility now being reported in Mexico is that the killings are linked to an ongoing series of violent clashes between the LeBarons and an alliance of local farmers over land and water rights in the semi-desert of northwestern Chihuahua.
The farming collective is called El Barzón. Its dispute with the Mormon clan over local aquifers goes back some six decades, and had escalated dramatically over the last few years. The farmers accuse the family of syphoning “excessive” amounts of water from rivers and vital aquifers for the commercial cultivation of maguey, nopal, and walnut trees, leaving nearby communities without enough water for subsistence farming.
Mexico’s National Water Commission (CONAGUA) also alleges the LeBarons’ have sunk hundreds of illegal wells on their properties. They also have reservoirs allegedly bulldozed to hold water diverted from local rivers, leaving little or nothing for indigenous communities downstream.
In one high-profile investigation, in November of 2017, CONAGUA found a dozen illegal drainages on a single property, the La Mojina ranch, owned by Julian and Joel LeBaron. In another case, local politician Alexander LeBaron was accused of using his influence to grant 395 water concessions to family members and illegal strawman companies. He flatly denied the accusation. But the resulting strain on the Carmen River Basin and Flores Magón aquifer reportedly left some 900 families in the region without sufficient water.
In April of 2018, more than 100 members of El Barzón invaded the LeBaron family ranch at La Mora to protest the diminished water table. They destroyed property, crops, and vehicles and, when they refused to disperse, LeBaron family members reportedly opened fire on them. At least one LeBaron and five campesinos (small farmers) were wounded in the clash.
In the aftermath, Julian LeBaron told a Mexican newspaper that he and his family were prepared “take justice into our own hands” against the campesinos. Shortly thereafter Barzón leaders publicly announced that they’d received death threats from the LeBarons. A few months later, in June of 2018, two members of the ejido were murdered, supposedly for “protecting water rights.” The crimes remain unsolved.
Then, in August of 2019, a court ruling in favor of the farmers ordered Francisco LeBaron, Julian’s brother, to restore land allegedly confiscated by the family from small farmers in Chihuahua. It appears that court order was ignored by the LeBarons. In fact, shortly before the massacre, El Barzón claimed the family was planning to excavate 50 new wells.
As speculation that they might have been behind last week’s attack has mounted, Barzón leaders have publicly denied any involvement. Joaquín Solorio, a spokesman for the group who had two family members killed while “defending the environment” in the Carmen River Basin in 2012, has been particularly outspoken against the allegations his group was responsible for the attack on the LeBaron caravan.
“I am a victim, too,” he told a Mexican news site. “I find it distasteful, this finger pointing and speculation. It’s up to the authorities to determine [who’s responsible]. The murder of women and children is reprehensible.”
Spokespeople for the LeBaron family declined to be interviewed for this article, so it was not possible to ask them if they considered the conflict with El Barzón to be relevant to the attack. However, shortly after the ranch invasion in 2018, family spokesperson Julian LeBaron said in an interview with Televisa Chihuahua that he was “quite worried” El Barzón would return “and finish destroying everything.”
The Barzón connection is the theory du jour in the Mexican press, but there are still holes in this hypothesis. Barzón has a strong presence in both neighboring states, but the main flashpoints in the conflict between the farmers and the LeBarons centered around the family’s compounds in Chihuahua. Yet the Mormon convoy was attacked after departing a ranch across the state line in Sonora. It’s also unusual for campesinos in Mexico to possess the kind of firepower used in the ambush.
Still, it appears the special commission set up by President López Obrador will be taking a long, hard look at El Barzón. “They’re analyzing all the hypotheses, all of them, nothing is ruled out,” the president said late last week.
A source within one of the local cartels, who agreed to speak with The Daily Beast only under the condition of anonymity, said that whoever was responsible for the attack against the LeBarons is now being hunted by Sinaloa Cartel leader and former Chapo lieutenant Mayo Zambada.
Mayo remains the most powerful capo in the Sonora-Chihuahua corridor. And he’s supposedly deeply upset over the massacre, after having given orders not to rock the boat after one of Chapo’s sons was arrested and then rescued by cartel forces last month, the source said.
“If Sinaloa finds out who did this they’ll kill them immediately. Mayo is fucking pissed. After the whole thing with Chapo’s son he wants to lay low. And now they shoot up a bunch of blond-headed children and put it all over the news?”
The source also said that the nature of the attack would seem to indicate a desire for vengeance, or perhaps to drive the LeBaron family out of the area once and for all.
“Kids? Little babies? This is more along the lines of retaliation,” the source said. “Mexicans don’t kill a bunch of white kids for no reason.”
USC’s Bunker described cartel leaders like El Mayo as akin to “warlords like we saw during the Dark Ages in Europe.”
In keeping with that analysis, the anonymous source implied that Sinaloa chief Mayo is about to go medieval on those responsible for the LeBaron massacre, be they cartel rivals or frustrated farmers who’ve been cheated of their water rights.
“Whoever shot those kids is in for a bad ride,” the cartel insider said. “They should hope the... government catches them before Mayo does.”