Court Orders Mexican Drug Cartel to Pay Mormon Families $4.6 Billion After Desert Massacre

The attack, which killed nine women and children from the Miller/LeBaron and the Johnson/Langford families, was one of the worst in the history of Mexico's "drug war."
A view of the car where part of the nine murdered members of the LeBaron family were killed during an ambush in Bavispe, Sonora mountains, Mexico, on November 5, 2019. (Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

A Mexican drug cartel must pay an offshoot Mormon community roughly $1.5 billion for their involvement in the gruesome murder of three women and six children in November 2019, a U.S. court ruled Thursday. The families alleged that the Juarez cartel massacre—one of the worst in the history of Mexico’s “drug war”—constituted terrorism. Under the federal Anti-Terrorism Act, such financial reimbursements are automatically tripled, bringing the total settlement to a whopping $4.6 billion. 


Family members of the deceased, who were all U.S. citizens, filed the lawsuit in a North Dakota courtroom against the Juarez cartel and one of its subgroups, La Linea, after the highly-publicized massacre in the Mexican border state of Sonora. 

The case is unique for being one of the first to try a drug cartel in its entirety as the defendant.

The cartel did not have representation at the trial, nor did it respond to a published summons, according to the Bismarck Tribune. It’s unclear how American authorities intend to make the Mexico-based cartel pay, but the government can freeze assets of terrorist organizations on U.S. soil, if they have any, and use the funds to pay the victims.

The 2019 murders of the Mormon families was one of the most dramatic cases of civilian casualties in Mexico’s drug wars in recent memories, which was amplified by their U.S. citizenship and connections to the Mormon church. The families are decedents of a polygamist sect of fundamentalist Mormons that moved to Mexico from the U.S. around 100 years prior.

But on November 4 2019, Christina Langford Johnson, 29, Dawna Langford, 43, and Rhonita Miller, 30, were driving through rural Sonora in three SUV’s along with 14 children, when they ran into alleged members of La Linea. In the ensuing attack, the three women were killed, along with 8-month-old twins, a 2-year-old, and three other children between 10 and 12. Several burned to death inside of the vehicles. Five of the seven surviving children were also shot, although they lived after trekking through near-freezing temperatures in search of help.


“If you start when the first bullet was shot until the last person in that car took their last breath, that must have been close to an hour, maybe, 45 minutes of just total terror,” Dr. Sebastian Schubl, a trauma surgeon, burn expert, and the Director of Medical Operations for the University of California-Irvine Health Administration, testified at the four day trial in February, according to the judgement document. “Watching their siblings, their family members burn to death, it’s – it must be the most frightening thing that anyone has ever experienced.”

The surviving children are some of the beneficiaries of the lawsuit, filed by the Miller/LeBaron family and the Johnson/Langford family. The judgement document provides a chilling step by step picture of the massacre, and the reasons behind it.

The plaintiffs alleged that the day before the killings “100 heavily armed individuals had a meeting … at the ranch of the criminal organization known as La Linea or the Juarez Cartel. The main objective of this criminal organization was to take back the territory of Agua Prieta which at that time belonged to the Sinaloa cartel.”

During the meeting, “the order was [given] to shoot ... at anyone, be it a civilian, police officer, just anyone.”

The next day, the families left in a caravan for the United States and encountered the cartel in two areas near the town La Mora, Sonora. After having car problems, the caravan was separated and in two different attacks, the cartel killed nine people.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Mexican authorities arrested 31 people allegedly connected to La Linea and the Juarez cartel, although only seven have been charged with the homicides, according to the family of some of the victims.