US-mexico border
US-Mexico border Reuters

Mexican cartel gunmen have shot dead at least nine Americans including four children near the US-Mexico border. The bullet-ridden bodies of four children and a woman were found in a burnt-out car, while relatives said more women and children have been killed. Early reports said that two or three more cars with 12 children and two women were still missing, but some of them have been traced and are out of danger.

Meanwhile, Mexican local media said at least 12 people were killed. Nine of the dead were children, EL Universal reported. However, international news outlets have not been able to confirm if 12 were dead. A Reuters report said 'up to nine members' of the Lebaron family were killed. BBC reported, citing Chihuahua state attorney, that the number of victims remained "confusing". While relatives of the victims said nine people died, local Mexican media said 12 people may have died.

Who were the victims?

The victims were from the community called 'Colonia LeBaron', a break-away Mormon faction living in Mora, which is about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. It is believed that members of an organised crime syndicate waylaid them and shot them dead. Three women and fourteen children from the Mormon community were travelling from La Mora, Sonora, to Bavispe on Monday. La Mora is a settlement founded by the Mormon community, a breakaway Christian faction.

The Mormon community members had been targeted by attackers in northern Mexico in the past as well. LA Times said that in 2009, a relative of the latest victims had been killed in Chihuahuastate of Mexico. The Mormons, who settled in the badlands infested with violent Mexican drug gangs, have had one too many confrontations with the mafia in the past.

The Colonia LeBaron community was formed in early part of the 20th century when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposed the practice of polygamy.

'Nita and four of my grandchildren are burnt and shot up'

The criminal group blocked communication networks in the region and threw a cordon around the crime scene to prevent the police force from accessing the scene, the paper reported. The local authorities said the army and national guards were deployed to trace the criminals.

Among those dead were a US woman, her 6-month-old twins and two other children, ages 8 and 10, the Associated Press reported citing relatives of the victims. A video on social media showed the gutted SUV with bullet holes, in which the victims were travelling. The gruesome killings happened on a dirt road connecting the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, agencies said.

"This is for the record ... Nita and four of my grandchildren are burnt and shot up," a male voice can be heard saying in the video, in an American accent, Reuters said.

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Representational picture Reuters

Why were the Mormons targeted?

The victims are believed to be from the LeBaron family, whose forefather Alma Dayer LeBaron had set up a large Mormon settlement in the region bordering Mexico and Arizona. Facebook user Kenny LeBaron, who lives in North Dakota, revealed the brutal killings to the world through a chilling post. "Guys please pray for my family. My cousin...she was in mexico on her way to my town and was ambushed by cartel they killed her and her 4 children and burnt them alive even the 2 babies . They live in williston," he said in the post.

Wealthy Mormon clans that have settled in certain enclaves in Mexico have been targeted by the cartels in the past as well. They have been victims of extortion threats and kidnappings.

Authorities in Mexico and the US have not been able to say what was the motive behind the gruesome killings. Officials in Chihuahua and Sonora state governments said a probe has been initiated and that further details were not available.

US Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, said he was reviewing the incident closely. "The security of our co-nationals is our great priority," Landau said on Twitter.

(The story has been updated to reflect the lack of clarity over the number of the dead and to add other details).