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Families hold first funerals for Mormon massacre victims

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Rancho La Mora (Mexico) (AFP)

Relatives began holding funerals Thursday for the nine Mormon women and children murdered in northern Mexico, still reeling from pain and anger three days after the massacre.

Long convoys of cars carrying the victims' extended families from other parts of Mexico and the United States wound their way through the rugged mountains to Rancho La Mora, a hamlet of neatly kept ranch-style houses and immaculately groomed pines where the four victims lived and will now be buried in a small cemetery.

Under a heavy security deployment, relatives gathered beneath a white tent and took turns filing past the children's coffins, which were decorated with family photographs, baby booties and signs reading "Angels" and "Daughters of the King."

"We have come to honor their memory and to try to understand what is happening," said the man at the head of the caravan of 70 vehicles, Alex LeBaron.

The three murdered women and six children, who had dual US-Mexican citizenship, were killed in a hail of bullets Monday as they drove on a rural road between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, a lawless region known for turf wars between drug cartels fighting over lucrative trafficking routes to the United States.

The gunmen burned one of the cars down to a charred steel shell with five of the victims inside.

Eight other children managed to escape, six of them wounded. One 13-year-old boy helped hide the younger ones in the brush, then walked six hours home to get help.

The families involved -- the Langfords, Millers and LeBarons -- are part of a large group of US Mormons who emigrated to Mexico in the late 19th century, fleeing persecution for their traditions, including polygamy.

They have lived in Mexico for generations, farming the land and often exporting their produce to the United States.

In a sign of their hardworking values, Rancho La Mora residents made the victims' simple coffins themselves, hammering the white wood together and sanding it down as the community mourned the first five: Rhonita Miller, 30, and her children Howard Jr, 12; Krystal, 10; and twins Titus and Tiana, eight months.

"We are people who aspire to create peace and watch our families grow by living honestly," one community leader, Julian LeBaron, told journalists.

He took issue with the assertion by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's government that the victims were killed by mistake by a drug cartel defending its turf.

"They knew they were women and children and still they attacked them, and after attacking them they set them on fire," he said.

The community, which has taken up arms to fend off threats by gangs, believes it was deliberately targeted by criminals -- something that has happened in the past.

Benjamin LeBaron, founder of a crime-fighting group called SOS Chihuahua, was assassinated in 2009 after he led protests over the kidnapping of his 16-year-old brother, who was released after the family refused to pay a ransom.

- String of violence -

The massacre has caused shock on both sides of the border and prompted US President Donald Trump to call for a "war" on Mexican cartels.

Lopez Obrador again defended his security strategy in a news conference, after a recent string of high-profile violent episodes, including a botched operation last month in which soldiers briefly arrested a son of jailed kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, then released him when they were outgunned by his cartel.

"We are applying a plan to transform (Mexico), despite all the obstacles," said the anti-establishment leftist, who took office in December 2018.

"We have achieved a lot in a short time ... But there's still work to do."

Mexico has been hit by a wave of violence since 2006, the year the government controversially deployed the army to fight powerful drug cartels.

Since then, the country has registered more than 250,000 murders.

Many experts blame the "drug wars" for spiraling violence, as fragmented cartels battle each other and the army.

Lopez Obrador has vowed a change in strategy, repeating the mantra "hugs, not bullets" and attacking what he sees as the roots of crime: poverty and inequality.

But he has struggled to rein in the violence. This year Mexico appears on track to set a new murder record, with 25,890 so far.

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