The brazen murder of several children and women from a prominent American Mormon family by cartel gunmen in northern Mexico has yet again highlighted the country’s abysmal security situation, while also raising concerns that the killers will elude justice.
At least nine US citizens, all family members of anti-crime activist Julián LeBarón, were killed in the November 4 attack in the small town of Bavispe in northwest Sonora state along the US-Mexico border. The dead included three women and six children, two of whom were just infants, according to Animal Político.
The group of 17 family members was reportedly traveling in three separate vehicles when they came under fire. Gunmen shot some of the passengers at point blank range and sprayed the vehicles with bullets, causing one to burst into flames, according to purported videos of the burnt-out vehicle.
It’s still unclear why the family was targeted, but their convoy of vehicles may have been mistaken for that of a rival group. The region where the attack took place has long been hotly contested by criminal groups — most recently between the Sinaloa Cartel and another gang know as La Linea, which is linked to the Juárez Cartel — for its drug and migrant smuggling routes into the United States.
The LeBarón family are members of a Mormon community that has lived in the US-Mexico border region for decades. In the past, they have directly confronted the organized crime groups that exert de facto control in this lawless frontier. A decade ago, two other LeBarón family members were kidnapped and then murdered after the townspeople refused to pay the ransom fee demanded by the perpetrators.
The shameless slaughter of women and children brings Mexico’s deteriorating security situation to a new breaking point. Just last month, 14 police officers were killed at the hands of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) in Michoacán. Fourteen suspected criminals were killed in what authorities claimed to be a shootout in Guerrero the very next day. Shortly after that, 13 people were killed after armed Sinaloa Cartel gunmen turned the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacán into a war zone to free a son of former cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo.”
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Authorities in Sonora and neighboring Chihuahua states have since launched a joint operation to find the other missing LeBarón family members, as well as those responsible for the brutal attack, according to an official press release.
While Mexico is on pace to log what will likely be the most homicidal year in the country’s history, an equally severe crisis of impunity has persisted alongside the record bloodshed, bolstering fears that the LeBarón family’s killers may never be caught.
In 2018, all but two of Mexico’s 32 states had impunity rates that were high, very high or atypical, according to the Global Impunity Index for Mexico. The impunity rate at the national level received a score of almost 70 on a 100-point scale, with higher scores signifying greater levels of impunity. Globally, Mexico routinely ranks among the worst countries for prosecuting crimes.
Those responsible for the recent violence in Michoacán and Culiacán, for example, have yet to be arrested. But arguably the most notorious example of impunity in recent years involves the still unsolved disappearances of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in 2014.
As attention and resources are poured into hardline security measures, Mexico’s police force continues to lack the training or resources to secure crime scenes, thoroughly investigate crimes and gather critical evidence needed for prosecutors to effectively hold suspected criminals accountable. Meanwhile, the country’s criminal groups have been given a blank check to operate as violently as they please without the fear of arrest or prison time.
That said, the LeBarón ambush is an “exceptional case,” given the murder of children and the high profile and local importance of the family, according to security analyst and former Mexican police officer Jaime López.
One would expect a better response from authorities to identify and arrest the culprits. However, López cautioned that the current government has shown “little incentive to build the capabilities to investigate and prosecute murders effectively.”