EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A federal judge in North Dakota has ordered the transnational criminal organization formerly known as the Juarez cartel to pay monetary damages to the families of nine Americans killed in an ambush in Northern Mexico on Nov. 4, 2019.
The families of Christina Langford, Rhonita Miller, Dawna Ray and six children are to receive a combined $4.64 billion in civil damages under the federal Anti-Terrorism Act, U.S. Magistrate Judge Clare Hochhalter has ruled. Interest will compound at a rate of 6.5 percent a year should the criminal organization now known as “La Linea” delay payment.
Judgment was issued by default on June 24, as the cartel did not contest the proceedings despite the publication of trial notices published in Mexico.
Howard Miller and Tyler Johnson, husbands to the former Rhonita LeBaron and Christina Langford, respectively, filed the civil suit in Bismarck because they were living and working in North Dakota at the time of the killings. The slain Americans had ties to an independent Mormon colony in Northwest Chihuahua known as LeBaron.
The attack took place outside the United States but involved American citizens who were victims of an act of international terrorism, hence they are entitled to damages, the judge ruled. The women and children were shot and burned.
“Throughout history … La Linea has attacked civilians like in this case. Public servants, former police, prosecutors, former politicians, and their signature or their habit (is to) burn vehicles,” Hochhalter wrote.
Mexican government investigators maintain the Americans traveling in three SUVs on a highway in Sonora were mistaken by La Linea for members of a rival Sinaloa cartel cell known as Los Salazar. The two groups have fought a protracted war for control of the Agua Prieta, Sonora-Douglas, Arizona drug corridor.
However, the judgment points to a deliberate act of terror.
“Based on facts adduced from evidence at trial and significant documentation of defendant’s tactics found in the public record, and as set forth in the (complaint), the attacks carried out by defendant were objectively intended to intimidate and coerce a civilian population and to influence policy of a government by intimidation and coercion,” the judge wrote.
This is done to discourage people from testifying about cartel members or their activities and keep Mexican police from investigating them, according to the judgment. “The defendant’s objective is to cause terror in people.”
Details of the 2019 attack emerge
Other than denouncing the violence, U.S. authorities have remained mum over what exactly happened along the Sonora-Chihuahua border the night of the killings. Mexican officials have disclosed information piecemeal in the form of news releases whenever an arrest is made. So far, Mexican authorities have arrested nearly 30 men in connection to the attack.
Evidence presented in federal court in North Dakota details the manner of the killings.
After hearing from two defectors of the Sinaloa cartel on Nov. 3, 2019, about 100 heavily armed members of La Linea began an offensive against their rivals, firing on houses and setting some of them on fire in Agua Prieta.
Hours later to the south, Rhonita Miller, Langford, Ray and their children formed a three-vehicle caravan in the farming community of La Mora, Sonora, intending to reach a highway where Rhonita Miller was to travel to Phoenix, Arizona, to meet her husband; her companions were to head back to LeBaron, Chihuahua.
Simultaneously, the warring La Linea units were taking control of a 9-mile stretch of highway. Cartel members allegedly allowed Langford’s and Ray’s vehicles to pass their first checkpoint, “knowing a second hit team was lying in wait further down the road,” according to court documents.
Rhonita Miller’s vehicle had a mechanical issue and she returned to La Mora to get a Chevrolet Suburban. Court documents state she rushed to catch up with the other two women and came under automatic and “belt-fed” machine-gun fire at the first cartel checkpoint. The woman and at least some of the four children riding with her apparently were still alive after the barrage.
A cartel member videotaped part of the assault, in which his peers allegedly shout, “They’re still there …” and “Burn it.”
Nine miles down, the vehicles driven by the other two women came under gunfire at the second cartel checkpoint, court documents state.
Langford exited the vehicle with a bullet wound to her hip, hands high up in the air to show the attackers she was unarmed; the cartel members shot her through the chest. Her 7-month-old baby was in her vehicle but survived, with at least one bullet having hit her car seat.
Behind her, Ray stopped her own Chevrolet Suburban and tried to exit the vehicle to assist Langford; she was shot at, returned to the vehicle and instructed her children to run. Fifteen gunmen moved closer to her vehicle and fired, killing her and two of her children, according to court documents.
Mexican authorities reported finding 200 bullet casings on the scene; Ray had been shot 13 times in the body and the head; some of the children survived the attack and carried younger siblings back to La Mora.
Court documents detail how relatives rushed to the scene after the attacks and were able to see still-burning vehicles and at least three men dressed in black and wearing military helmets walking away.
The Mexican government listed the cause of death of Langford, Ray and two of her children as the result of gunshot wounds. Rhonita Miller and her four children died from third-degree burns.
“Even after these murders, the Juarez cartel continues to engage in repeated acts of terrorism,” court documents state.
Hochholter’s judgment includes $2 billion for the Langford family, $1.8 billion for the Miller-LeBaron family, $579.5 million for the Johnson family and $184.8 million for the Ray family.