At least three American mothers and six children from a Mormon family were killed in a shooting in the Mexican border state of Sonora on Monday in an attack blamed on drug cartel gunmen.
Seventeen family members from the LeBaron and Langford families were 'ambushed' while heading to celebrate a wedding anniversary in a three-car caravan from La Mora - a decades-old settlement founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In horrific scenes, gunmen opened fire on one child running away before torching a car as family members burnt to death while trapped inside. Other young children managed to escape and hide by the roadside.
One relative said a boy concealed his wounded siblings - some less than a year old - in bushes before he ran back to the nearby town to get help after his mother was gunned down.
The motive for the attack is not yet clear. One family member claimed it was mistaken identity, however the religious group has had previous run-ins with organized crime cartel in the area, including one member being killed.
In last night’s massacre, Rhonita Maria LeBaron was traveling to Phoenix when her car broke down, according to relatives.
Gunmen opened fire and torched her vehicle causing the gas tank to explode where she died along with her twin six-month-old babies, Titus and Tiana and two more of her children Krystal, 10, and Howard, 12.
Eight miles ahead, Christina Langford Johnson, 31, Dawna Ray Langford, 43, and two of Dawna's children, Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 3, were also killed in other SUVs. Other family members are still unaccounted for.
Christina's seven-month-old baby Faith was found alive on the floor in the backseat and seven of Dawna's children escaped with bullet holes riddled throughout their bodies, according to relatives.
One of the mothers is said to have got out her car during the siege and put her hands up to surrender before attackers 'shot her point blank in the chest'.
A video posted by a relative on social media shows the charred remains of the Chevy Suburban. It had been burned following an explosion and was smoldering, with bullet holes visible in the paneling.
Kenny LeBarón, a cousin of the women driving the vehicles, told the New York Times: 'When you know there are babies tied in a car seat that are burning because of some twisted evil that’s in this world. It's just hard to cope with that.'
The area of La Mora is notorious for drug traffickers and Mexico has seen a string of violent incidents as the 'drug war' spirals out of control.
'It was a massacre,' said Julian Lebaron, a relative and activist who has denounced criminal groups in the area, told Formula Radio.
His brother, Benjamin Lebaron, founder of a crime-fighting group called SOS Chihuahua, was assassinated in 2009.
Kenny The families lived in La Mora, about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. Many of the church's members were born in Mexico and thus have dual citizenship.
Relative Jhon LeBaron said that Christina had been killed while her seven-month-old daughter survived. Jhon posted on his Facebook page that his aunt Dawna Langford was also dead.
But Jhon said that seven of his aunt's children had been left abandoned alive by attackers on a roadside. Relatives on social media said at least on of the children walked from the scene to their family home.
'My aunt Dawna's son Devon hid some of his shot and wounded siblings in the bushes and ran all the way back to town for help,' Jhon wrote.
Only two of the family members in the caravan were left unharmed.
The Chihuahua state attorney general, Cesar Augusto Peniche, said the number of victims remains 'confused'.
Lafe Langford Jr, a relative of the vicitms, said medics from the Mexican state of Senora reportedly rushed to help, but doctors would prefer to fly them to the US.
'We can’t get a helicopter or any airplanes or airlifts,' he told the Salt Lake Tribune, 'and it’s going to be at least a six-hour journey to El Paso or Tucson.'
Authorities in Sonora state and the U.S. Embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The federal Department of Security and Citizens' Protection said security forces were reinforced with National Guard, army and state police troops in the area following 'the reports about disappearance and aggression against several people.'
It would not be the first time that members of the break-away church had been attacked in northern Mexico, where their forebears settled - often in Chihuahua state - decades ago.
The colony was founded by Alma Dayer LeBaron who moved to Mexico as a breakaway from the Mormon church in 1924 after being excommunicated from the church for practicing polygamy.
When Alma died in 1951, he passed the leadership of the community on to his son Joel LeBaron, whose younger brother Ervil LeBaron, was his second in command.
When the brother's split, Ervil had Joel killed and in 1974, was tried and convicted in Mexico for Joel's murder.
In 2009, Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who was related to those killed in Monday's attack, was murdered in 2009 in neighboring Chihuahua state.