In 2019, Adrian LeBaron’s daughter and four of his grandchildren were killed in a massacre in Mexico . Now, he wants to sue the cartels he believes are responsible.
Adrian LeBaron’s daughter was one of three women killed with their children in a horrific attack on a caravan of Mormon families in Mexico in 2019. Two years after the murders, and with the help of an American law firm, he’s seeking a novel approach at bringing those responsible to justice.
.Adrian LeBaron sat in the hotel conference room, unsure about this meeting, or the gringo seated across from him in the dark, expensive suit. He had come to Salt Lake City at the urging of his family, who believed the man could help.A month before, on a mountain pass in Sonora, Mexico, Adrian’s daughter and four of his grandchildren had been killed in a massacre that took the lives of three women and six children. Eight others miraculously survived, with seven wandering through the desert bloodied and dehydrated until help arrived. The killings made international news. CNN and
The New York Timessent reporters. Then president Donald Trump had even tweeted about it, offering to send in “an army” to defeat the cartels.Adrian, 60, came from a community called Colonia LeBaron, which was settled by Mormon fundamentalists. In its early years the town was as poor as any of the surrounding villages—Adrian remembered dirt floors and no insulation—but over time Colonia LeBaron had become known for its wealth, which had made the city a target.
A nephew had been kidnapped in 2009 and held for ransom. After the community refused to pay, he was returned but two other relatives were executed. Whoever ordered those deaths was still at large, Adrian believed, and so he had little trust in the Mexican government or the police to track down those responsible for the massacre. In fact, he wondered if the police had participated. headtopics.com
The graves of Rhonita Miller and four of her children who were killed by unknown assailants, lie in a cemetery in LeBaron, Mexico, December 21, 2019.Photograph by Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters.The man seated across from him was named Michael Elsner. Tall, ruddy-faced, and deliberate in manner, Elsner represented a law firm called Motley Rice, whose attorneys famously negotiated a $246 billion settlement agreement against the tobacco industry in the late ’90s.
In the months before the massacre in Sonora, Elsner and other lawyers on the firm’s anti-terrorism team had been wondering if they could use a legal strategy similar to what they’d used in other terrorism-related cases against a Mexican drug cartel. Because the victims of the massacre were dual Mexican American citizens, Elsner believed this might be the perfect test case, one that would create a legal blueprint to tackle “narco terrorism.”
Elsner explained how it would work. The Mexican police would be responsible for arresting the suspects, the Mexican courts the criminal prosecution. Motley Rice would conduct its own parallel investigation, with their own private investigators, who might uncover evidence the police missed. Yes, they would find out who was responsible, there was little doubt of that, Elsner assured Adrian, but their real focus would be who the killers work for, and most importantly, who those people do business with. If the gunmen were connected to a drug cartel, Motley Rice could bring a civil action against the cartel.
In the decades-long Mexican drug war this could be a game changer. Adrian told Elsner he would have to confer with his family back in Mexico before signing. He wanted the deaths of his daughter and grandchildren and the others killed that day to mean something, but he also had a bigger aim: He wanted to make sure something like this would never happen again. headtopics.com
Several weeks later, he reached out to Elsner to say he would sign. He wanted to make the cartels pay.Aerial view of the police yellow tape that marks the crime scene where members of the Mormon familiesLeBaronand Langford were ambushed prior to the official visit of President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador to La Mora on January 11, 2019 in Bavispe, Mexico.
Photograph by Luis Gutierrez/Getty Images.II.The highway stretches through Northern Mexico like a black ribbon, unspooling across the desert floor. It’s early autumn, and the hills are still green with sage and ocotillo. I’m nearly 150 miles south of El Paso, in a remote region where many of the roads trace back to Pancho Villa or Spanish colonial rule and mafia strongmen demand a tax of every business in town. We’re traveling toward the Sierra Madre, where many of the rustic villages have fallen under the control of the cartels. One year has passed since the massacre.
I’m in the back seat of a dust-covered Suburban driven by Adrian, who is wearing black cowboy boots and a white linen shirt. Shalom, one of his three wives, is in the passenger seat. They make a handsome couple. Adrian has the athletic, muscular build of an athlete, and moves like one too, humming with intensity. Shalom is a small woman with blonde hair and high cheekbones. They finish each other’s sentences and she smiles when he can’t stop talking, or when he accidentally slips into long stretches of Spanish, forgetting I can’t understand him.
The Mormon Church officially banned polygamy in 1890, but the practice has persisted and there are bands of fundamentalists scattered throughout the American West and Northern Mexico. At one point, Colonia LeBaron was one of the largest of these communities, but today it’s rare to find someone under the age of 40 in the town of around 3,000 who is polygamist. Among Adrian’s 35 living children there are Roman Catholics, agnostics, and Mormons of all types. This mirrors the makeup of the town, which is united by heritage and family relation more than religion. headtopics.com
Rhonita was the sixth of Adrian and Shalom’s 12 children, and blonde and fair-skinned like her mom. By the time she turned five, the family no longer traveled with Adrian when he went north for work, and so she spent her childhood almost entirely in Colonia LeBaron at her mother’s side, helping tend to their pecan trees or feeding the chickens. When chores were done she rushed inside to read her mom’s romance novels, which Shalom encouraged because she figured it was a good way to get kids to fall in love with reading.
In those years LeBaron was safe, even serene. They knew who the narcos were in the surrounding towns—the garish salmon-colored homes with roman columns stood out in rural Chihuahua—but they existed on the periphery. LeBaron was another world. Boys played marbles on the streets late into the night and hunted rabbits in the fields, Rhonita and her sisters hitchhiked from school, and teenagers inflated tractor tires and floated down the river in the summer. Everyone knew each other because everyone was related by blood or marriage.
When Rhonita was 16, she met Howard Miller, a boy from another Mormon community three hours from LeBaron, across the Sierra Madre in a tiny village called La Mora. He and Rhonita quickly fell in love, married, and eventually moved to North Dakota, where Howard found work in construction and trucking for the oil industry.
Relatives and friends stands next to the coffins with the remains of Rhonita Miller and four of her children.Photograph by Herika Martinez / AFP / Getty Images.By that point, things had started to change in Mexico. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels, and the country plunged into a monstrous period of violence. Wealthy ranchers from towns around Colonia LeBaron started to disappear. With each kidnapping the demands for ransom increased.
In May 2009, Rhonita’s 16-year-old cousin was kidnapped and held for a $1 million ransom. Rather than paying, the community mobilized, leading a caravan of hundreds to the Chihuahua governor’s office, after which the boy was released. In the aftermath, cartel hit men executed two community leaders—including the boy’s older brother—and warned there would be more deaths.
Such methods are “designed to intimidate and coerce members of the public from speaking out and acting against the Cartel,” Elsner and associates from other firms representing family members of the victims wrote in a complaint filed last year in U.S. federal court. Rather than silence, the LeBarons went the other way, becoming outspoken critics of the Juárez cartel, and going on Mexican television and radio to criticize government corruption and complicity with organized crime. The LeBarons have become symbols of resistance to the cartel, the complaint said, adding that the cartel sees Mormons in Chihuahua as their opponents.
III.We have been driving for several hours and are now winding our way up a mountain pass through the Sierra Madre, cutting through cacti and mesquite toward the massacre site. There are no gas stations for miles, or restaurants or hotels. Cell service is spotty. If something were to go wrong, we’re on our own.
At the roadside where Rhonita was killed we stop. The earth is still black from where her Suburban was torched. Adrian scrambles up the hillside where he believes her killers stood and points to La Mora, which lies in a valley below us. There are verdant green pastures for cattle, pecan orchards, and about 35 houses clustered together. Two men on horseback are crossing a river that cuts through the valley.
Rhonita had been living in La Mora for nearly a year before the massacre, after spending roughly seven years in North Dakota. She immediately took to the village. She loved how quiet it was, and how she could live in the moment: put a loaf of bread in the oven, walk out the door, and take her kids on a nature walk in the surrounding hills, looking for aloe vera and other plants and herbs they could use.
Rhonita Miller’s mother Shalom Tucker and Miller’s sister Melissa Conklin pose for a photograph holding guns in LeBaron, Mexico, December 23, 2019.Photograph by Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters.On the morning of November 4, 2019, Rhonita rose early. She was headed to Phoenix to meet her husband while two other women in her extended family, Christina Marie Langford, 31, and Dawna Ray Langford, 43, were headed to Colonia LeBaron. For safety, they had agreed to travel in a caravan. There were 14 children with them.
The gunmen let the first two SUVs pass and then took aim at Rhonita’s Chevy Suburban. Her 12-year-old son, Howard, sat in the passenger seat; her 10-year-old daughter, Krystal, was in the back with the two twins strapped in car seats in the middle.Dressed in camouflage or in black from head to toe, the sicarios opened fire with automatic and belt-fed machine guns, killing Rhonita and all four of her children traveling with her. The men then descended from the hill, doused the Suburban in gasoline and set it ablaze. Christina and Dawna came under fire not much later nine miles up the mountain.
La Mora residents lit up WhatsApp after the women disappeared, asking the men in LeBaron to come help. When Adrian and Shalom arrived at the smoldering wreckage, Shalom collapsed in sobs. That night, Adrian used his cell phone as a flashlight to collect bullet shells with the other men in the search party, following the trail of broken scrub oak to figure out where the killers had come from. He immediately suspected they were from the Juárez cartel.
In time, his focus would turn to a group called La Línea, and a shadowy figure known as The Mute.Relatives of the massacre’s victims drive in a caravan on their journey to bury the dead near Bavispe, Sonora, Mexico November 8, 2019.Photograph by Carlos Jasso / Reuters.
IV.Composed of former and active-duty policemen, La Línea, or The Line, began as a heavily armed unit, extensively trained in urban warfare, which became the enforcement arm of the Juárez cartel. It grew more powerful circa 2008, when the war against “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera’s Sinaloa cartel was at its peak for control of the Juárez plaza, arguably the most valuable real estate on the border.
Over time, Ciudad Juárez began to feel virtually lawless. Convoys of Suburbans and Escalades driven by cartel members rumbled through town with impunity. Voices broke into radio traffic, taunting police and feeding them misinformation. An estimated one third of the police force worked for the cartels as drivers, lookouts, and hit men who did their killing in uniform. Many became La Línea. Since its founding, the group has been tied to some of the most heinous acts of narco violence in recent memory, including a massacre of 15 people at a birthday party in Juárez.
In July 2010, La Línea crossed the invisible line from drug-war violence into outright terrorism. First they dumped what appeared to be an injured policeman on the street in Ciudad Juárez and made an emergency call, hoping to lure law enforcement to the area, where they had rigged a car with 22 pounds of explosives packed with three-inch drywall nails as shrapnel. As first responders arrived, members of La Línea triggered the bomb, killing several people, including a doctor, and injuring many others.
It was reminiscent of tactics Pablo Escobar had used in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s and sent shock waves across Mexico, signaling what members of the U.S. media called a “new dimension of terror.”Houses stand in Colonia LeBaron, Mexico, December 24, 2019
Photograph by Alexandre Meneghini/ Reuters.I ask Adrian what evidence led to La Línea in the killing of his daughter.After the murders several suspects were arrested, he tells me, and under questioning the events leading up to the massacre began to emerge.
According to the complaint, in October 2019, about 100 men gathered at a ranch owned by a member of La Línea, which was located about an hour from La Mora. The group plotted how to take the plaza at Agua Prieta, the border town “El Chapo” had long used to smuggle drugs into Arizona, from the Sinaloa cartel.
The day before Rhonita was killed, 40 men left the ranch at about 5 p.m. in four vehicles. They headed to the mountains above La Mora with instructions to ambush anyone who passed. The other 60 men went to Agua Prieta under orders to torch cars and opened fire in the streets in an attempt to take the plaza.
The testimony of two confidential witnesses taken into custody eventually led to the man known as “The Mute,” whom Mexican authorities have described as the “intellectual author” behind the massacre. Also known as El 32, Roberto González Montes is a former cop turned alleged drug trafficker who controlled a cell of La Línea along the border of Chihuahua and Sonora.
Adrian says there are more arrests to come, and that González Montes may have just been carrying out orders from figures much higher up the food chain. He believes the goal was to “heat up the plaza,” a common tactic in the Mexican drug wars. The idea is to create so much violence in an area that law enforcement pays increased attention to criminal activities. The cartel operatives that have long controlled the area lose business, or are rounded up in arrests, the thinking goes (or killed in shoot-outs with police), and a rival cartel can come in and take over.
That night, we drop into the valley of La Mora and visit the home of Kenny Miller, Rhonita’s father-in-law. When we arrive, the driveway is full of pickup trucks, and the air smells of smoke. Kenny’s son is grilling steaks for a party while kids run across the lawn and jump on the trampoline. Ranch workers in straw cowboy hats lean against a stone wall that circles the lawn, drinking ice cold cans of Tecate.
Kenny, a stocky rancher who wears camo hats and admires Trump, has also taken to the media to draw attention to the tragedy, but has done so reluctantly. He worries Adrian is too brash, too confrontational with the Mexican government and the police. Mostly he fears that Adrian’s very public battle with the cartels (and by extension the Mexican government) is dangerous. “We have enjoyed peace and prosperity because we’ve kept to ourselves,” he tells me. “I would prefer a more quiet approach.”
I watch Adrian talk long into the night with men from La Mora. He wants them to join his fight against the cartels, and corruption in the Mexican government. As the tequila flows, he gets more animated. I pick up that Adrian is growing frustrated.Lian Johnson hangs a picture on the wall of her sister Rhonita Miller, December 22, 2019.
Photograph by Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters.As we drive to Colonia LeBaron the next afternoon, he tells me he has not given himself time to grieve. “If I did I would go hide in a fucking cave or something and be useless,” he says with a rueful laugh. The only way he can stay sane and not let grief entirely consume him is by remaining in constant motion, he says—by tweeting at the president of Mexico, needling the federal police on the slow progress of the investigation, appearing on Mexican radio and cable shows, demanding results, mocking the corruption, speaking to U.S. senators.
“They killed the wrong woman, my daughter!” Adrian will later tell me, his voice choked with emotion. “That death is going to be remembered as the going down of the cartel, at least the economic aspect of it and I want it to be very well-known that it happened and there’s a way for the world to give spankings to these fucking cartels.”
The lawsuit, he tells me, is his best hope.V.The attorneys of Motley Rice rose to national prominence in the 1990s when the firm served as the lead negotiator in the actions against Big Tobacco, which resulted in the largest civil settlement in American history. The firm subsequently poured much of its fortune into cases of high social impact, most notably by suing the financiers of al-Qaida, the architect of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. At one point, it was burning through at least $400,000 a month. The lawsuit, which names the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a defendant, originally asked for more than $1 trillion in damages. (The suit is still active in New York federal court. The Saudi government has denied any involvement in the attacks.)
Elsner was part of that team and helped build what amounted to a private intelligence agency, with more than 50 operatives on five continents, including former U.S. and French agents. They met with arms dealers, obtained computer hard drives from Afghan warlords and chased tips in Kabul, India, and Sudan.
While the 9/11 case was making its way through court, Elsner’s law firm pursued another case in the U.S. on behalf of 6,000 foreign victims of terror attacks in the Middle East, and 130 Americans, suing Arab Bank for maintaining accounts and providing other forms of material support to top Hamas leaders, families of suicide bombers, and others. For U.S. plaintiffs, Motley Rice reached a settlement with the bank in 2015 for an undisclosed sum.
Because much of the violence committed by La Línea looks more like indiscriminate acts of terror than the typical tit-for-tat killings of drug wars, Elsner believes he can make the case in U.S. federal court that La Línea and the Juárez cartel operate as terror organizations. If he can do that he can bring civil claims against those responsible for the killing of Adrian’s daughter and relatives.
According to a complaint filed in North Dakota federal court last July, the Juárez cartel has been designated a foreign narcotics trafficker, and under what’s known as the Kingpin Act, any U.S. property owned or controlled by the designated kingpin, or by anyone assisting the kingpin, can be frozen.
The complaint asserts that the Juárez cartel, through La Línea, uses methods intended to not only intimidate the civilian population, but to influence the policy of the Mexican government. They do so through grotesque acts of violence—beheadings posted online, bombing police and military targets, and assassinating journalists, politicians, and anti-crime activists.
A relative shows a ring that was made out of material from Rhonita Miller’s car, in which Miller and four of her children were killed, in LeBaron, Mexico, December 22, 2019.Photograph by Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters.“This isn’t just about trafficking routes, or smuggling guns and drugs, it is about fear and intimidation,” Elsner says. In much of Mexico, the cartels have become a shadow government—imposing taxes, extorting businesses, basically operating with impunity. “Under the Anti-terrorism Act they are engaging in activities that would qualify them as a terrorist organization.”
Getting money from the Juárez cartel won’t be easy. Some experts suggest that the nearly decades-long war it’s been fighting with the Sinaloa cartel has left it splintered and badly fractured, which could make it difficult for Motley Rice’s army of operatives to connect the loose factions that make up the cartel. In that light, it’s possible The Mute, the man who allegedly ordered the massacre, was operating autonomously, and has no real connection to other elements of what makes up the cartel.
Cartels have also become increasingly sophisticated at hiding their profits, says Scott Stewart, vice president of intelligence at TorchStone Global, a risk mitigation and security firm based in New York. “The larger figures pretty much have a full-time staff that specializes in diversifying assets and money laundering.”
That means setting up shell corporations and laundering cash through different holdings: ranches, bodegas, real estate in Miami and Houston, high-priced art, or herds of cattle. Tracing that back to the killers responsible for the massacre will be difficult, Stewart says.
Elsner disagrees with the idea that the Juárez cartel is too fragmented to sue, and says it is still a cohesive organization. “This is confirmed through confessions of those involved in the massacre in La Mora, and through findings of the Mexican government and the Mexican judiciary in other organized crime cases,” he says.
If a federal judge rules in favor of the LeBarons and the lawsuit’s other plaintiffs, theoretically they could be awarded money already seized by the U.S. government linked to the Juárez cartel.Elsner concedes a Mexican drug cartel has never been sued for damages, but the fact that the judge in North Dakota has allowed the case to proceed thus far is a good sign. The attorney hopes that by late 2021 or early 2022, he can take the Juárez cartel to court. Even if it takes years, Elsner believes he will get a judgment. After all, he is patient: He’s still pursuing the case against the financiers of 9/11.
VI.After a few days in LeBaron, I’m invited to Adrian’s wife Shalom’s house for a party. The home sits at the top of a hill overlooking the town at the end of a winding road guarded by a heavy security gate. It is ornate and expertly crafted—Adrian and his sons did most of the finish work—with soaring ceilings and large windows overlooking the valley.
Extended family members start to fill the house. Everyone is in a festive mood. Some are drinking wine and tequila; one of Adrian’s advisers is in the living room, watching the Dallas Cowboys on a big-screen TV. I can hear the strains of mariachi music from an outside balcony. Adrian excuses himself. It is time for him to dance with Shalom.
There are memories of Rhonita everywhere: photos, memorials, the notepad she kept near her bed in La Mora, where she wrote that she wanted to become more spiritual and spend more time studying the version of Mormonism to which her parents had dedicated their lives. In most photos she’s with her children.
Aerial view on January 11, 2020 of the site where nine Mormon women and children were killed by cartel related hitmen.Photograph by Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty Images.“My dad, has this changed him? No,” says Adrian and Shalom’s third-oldest daughter, Adriana. “Has it taken up his life? Yes.” Her father has always had an obsessive streak, she says, and he dives into everything with his full attention, whether at church or leading civic groups. “But now, this is all we talk about,” Adriana says. “He’s keeping us up to date on the next thing that’s going on. At every meal, every wedding, every birthday party. It absolutely takes up every single minute.”
The Christmas after the massacre, all of Adrian and Shalom’s kids—who live in Colorado and Utah and North Dakota—came home and sat around the fireplace and drank hot coffee. The grief was bone deep, Adriana recalls. “It was like we couldn’t get warm. We were just so cold.”
While Adrian seems to have an inexhaustible well to draw from, and never tires of talking about what happened to Rhonita, recalling the details of the horrific massacre is difficult for Shalom. She politely declines to go into much detail when I ask about how this has impacted her.
“I think we’re going to be in this fight the rest of our lives,” Adriana tells me. “My parents, they’ve already chosen that they’re not leaving Mexico, and that means they’ve accepted the reality that they live in a war zone. So they can either do nothing and let it get worse every day, or speak up. But they are in danger either way.”
On my last night in LeBaron, I go up to a hill that looks out over the valley. Once a barren desert, it was now covered with pecan orchards. The trees bring the community millions of dollars a year. Adrian’s generation grew up in poverty, but thanks to the years of sacrifice and savings, doing hard labor in the U.S. and bringing the profits back home, they’d built the beginnings of an empire, and with that will inevitably bring more trouble. Already, there have been violent skirmishes over water rights an hour south on land the LeBarons own.
Standing there overlooking Colonia LeBaron, I can’t help but admire Adrian’s courage, and I hope that his stand will make a difference, that the lawsuit against the cartel will truly cripple the financiers of violence and terror. But if the past is prologue, I also feel fear. I hope the massacre is the climax of their conflict with the cartels, and not another chapter in a story that’s long from over.Read more: VANITY FAIR »
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