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Mexican Authorities Say Mistaken Identity Is Strongest Theory In Highway Killings


We are learning more today about a brutal attack that has stunned Mexico. Mexican law enforcement say they believe drug cartel gunmen mistakenly killed three American women and six children traveling on a rural road near the U.S. border, but relatives of the victims say the attackers targeted their tightknit religious community. From Mexico City, NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Authorities say three women were driving three different cars filled with their children when they came under attack in a remote part of northern Mexico. At 9:40 Monday morning, gunmen shot up the first car, igniting it and leaving a mother and her four children to burn. An hour and 20 minutes later, authorities say gunmen ambushed the other two cars some 10 miles away.

Despite the time between the two attacks, Mexico's Army chief of staff Homero Mendoza told reporters today that it appears that the gunmen realized they had made a mistake. They saw children, and they let them run away, says Mendoza.


HOMERO MENDOZA: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: "From that, we could deduce that it wasn't a targeted attack." He said the women were driving the same type of cars used by drug traffickers in the region, and shell casings were covered at the scene. More than 200 are of the same caliber used in weapons favored by traffickers. Authorities have pointed to a feud between two rival drug gangs as the fight for access of the lucrative smuggling routes into the U.S. They say an altercation earlier in the day between the two groups near the religious community might have put the gangs on high alert.

But Adrian LeBaron, father to one of the murdered women and grandfather to many of the young victims, says there is no way this was a case of mistaken identity.


ADRIAN LEBARON: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Some of the surviving children say they saw their aunt get out of the car and put her hands up in the air to try and stop the attacks. LeBaron told Milenio TV that the gunmen killed her anyway, right in front of the children. Many of the young kids were able to run from the car despite various bullet wounds and hid in bushes for hours until rescued.

The families of the victims call themselves Mormons but are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are related to family members in other neighboring communities who have actively campaigned against organized crime in the region.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN TINGVALL'S "THE ROCKET III") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.