KIOS-FM

This Grieving Family Wants The U.S. To Designate Mexican Cartels As Terrorists

Dec 13, 2019
Originally published on December 13, 2019 8:33 pm

It was almost dark when Shalom LeBaron reached the spot where her daughter, Rhonita Miller LeBaron, and four grandchildren were killed. LeBaron found the remains of her 10-year-old granddaughter in the back seat of a car that had been riddled with bullets and set on fire earlier that morning.

"Facedown, crunched up in fetal position because she was so afraid," LeBaron said through tears in an interview with NPR. "That's how her bones were found."

It's been a month since the brutal massacre of nine women and children in northern Mexico. They were all dual U.S.-Mexican citizens and members of the extended LeBaron family.

Since then, that family has been on a mission: Urging the U.S. government to get more involved in the fight against drug cartels, which have been blamed for gruesome violence across Mexico — including the attack on the LeBaron family.

"It's hard for the Mexican government to compete with that kind of finance, that kind of firepower," said Bryan LeBaron, a cousin of the victims who lives in Utah. "This is going to take an international response or we have no hope."

The LeBaron family came to Washington this week to lobby members of Congress. The family wants the U.S. government to designate drug cartels as terrorist organizations. That would give the U.S. government more tools to fight them and could clear the way for the U.S. to send troops or drones into Mexico.

Members of the LeBaron family have been living in northern Mexico for generations, since they split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though they still consider themselves Mormon. They live in an area near the U.S.-Mexico border that is a major corridor for drug trafficking.

Family members saw the growing violence around them, says Rhonita's sister, Adriana Jones. But nothing could have prepared them for what happened.

"There was this idea that our innocence would protect us. That somehow, because we were so completely uninvolved in any of it, that we were safe," she said.

Jones remembers arguing with her husband about whether it was safe for her to drive alone or with her children in the area. At the time, Jones dismissed his concerns. "'Nobody's going to mess with a mom and five children. Who would do such a thing?'" she remembers asking.

"Yes stuff was going on around us. But no, we never could have imagined the brutality of what happened to my sister and her four children. Never in a thousand years," she said.

Adrian LeBaron (left), Julian LeBaron and other relatives of nine U.S. dual citizens slaughtered in northern Mexico last month said that López Obrador prayed with them for the safety of the country and pledged to visit the region.
Marco Ugarte / AP

The LeBaron family believes the attackers intended to send a message.

"They wanted the gringos out of there," said Adrian LeBaron, the patriarch of the family. "To be in control of all that area. That's my absolute conclusion."

As difficult as it for family members to talk about the horrible loss they've suffered, they've come to Washington to tell their story because they want to make the case that the drug cartels operate like terrorists.

"They did it to cause terror," says Frank LeBaron, Adrian's nephew, who lives in Utah. "That's how they control things, through terror. In our perspective, they were very aware of what they were doing. What better way to show how ruthless they are than to attack the most innocent thing on this earth," he said.

President Trump initially backed the idea of designating the cartels as terrorists. But since then, he has said that his administration is temporarily holding off on the idea.

"All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations. Statutorily we are ready to do so," Trump wrote on Twitter last week.

But at the request of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Trump said, "we will temporarily hold off this designation and step up our joint efforts to deal decisively with these vicious and ever-growing organizations!"

Critics on both sides of the border say it would be a mistake to designate drug cartels as terrorist organizations.

"I certainly understand the anger and outrage of families of victims, whether they be American or Mexican," said Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018. "But this is not an effective tool to go after this kind of crime."

Jacobson said the Trump administration already has other tools to combat drug cartels, including money laundering charges. And she cautions that the terrorism designation is deeply unpopular in Mexico because there is a widespread belief that it would be used to pave the way for U.S. military intervention there. That could jeopardize the cooperation of the Mexican government in the fight against cartels.

"Mexico will absolutely reject any kind of military action and become a fierce opponent of what you're trying to do instead of an ally," she said.

The terrorism designation also could undermine the Trump administration's immigration policies by sparking a new wave of Mexican migrants seeking asylum protection in the U.S. — at a time when the Trump administration has been working to stop the flow of asylum-seekers crossing the southern border.

Moreover, the designation would create a situation in which the U.S. government is sending asylum-seekers into "terrorist"-controlled territories. Tens of thousands of migrants fleeing persecution have been forced to wait in Mexican border towns for their day in U.S. immigration courts under a Trump administration policy known as "Remain in Mexico."

Still, the LeBaron family argues that the Mexican people would welcome U.S. assistance in the fight against the cartels.

"Our No. 1 position is that the sovereignty of Mexico must be respected," Bryan LeBaron said. "But I absolutely would welcome military aid, special ops especially, special missions. We need that to be able to go after these guys. It has been proven over and over that Mexico cannot handle this issue alone. It's an international crisis, and it will absolutely require an international solution."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been a month since the brutal massacre of nine women and children in northern Mexico. They were all dual U.S.-Mexican citizens, members of the extended LeBaron family. Since then, the family has been on a mission, urging the U.S. government to get more involved in a fight against drug cartels that are responsible for violence across Mexico.

BRIAN LEBARON: It's hard for the Mexican government to compete with that kind of finance and that kind of firepower. This is going to take an international response or we have no hope.

SHAPIRO: That's Brian LeBaron (ph), a cousin of the victims. He was here in Washington this week, along with other members of the LeBaron family, to meet with members of Congress. And they sat down for an interview with NPR's Joel Rose, who's here in the studio.

Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So you met with five members of the LeBaron family. Tell us about them.

ROSE: Yeah. Members of this family have been living in northern Mexico for generations since they split off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah, though they still consider themselves Mormons. I talked to the parents and sister of Rhonita Miller LeBaron. She was killed in the attack along with four of her children.

SHAPIRO: And I am sure this was a really painful interview for them to do.

ROSE: Yeah, emotions are still very raw, as I think you're going to hear in the tape. And a warning to listeners that some of this may be very difficult to listen to. But the family says you have to hear the gruesome details of this attack in order to really understand the point they're making. Rhonita's mother, Shalom LeBaron Tucker, talked about the moment that she saw the bullet-ridden car and the burned-up remains of her daughter and grandchildren.

SHALOM LEBARON TUCKER: When we got to where my daughter was, I got out of the car and went over there. And my grandson that was in the passenger side, 12 years old, tried to get out of the car and escape. And my granddaughter that was 10 - face down, crunched up in fetal position 'cause she was so afraid. But that's how her bones were found.

SHAPIRO: Joel, why do they think this happened? Do they believe the family was targeted by the cartel?

ROSE: I put that question to Adrian LeBaron, who's sort of the patriarch of the family and who lost his daughter and four grandchildren in the attack.

ADRIAN LEBARON: They want the gringos out of there, to being in control of all that area. That's my absolute conclusion.

ROSE: And this gets to the heart of why the family is in Washington this week because they want to make the case that these cartels operate like terrorists. Here's Frank LeBaron, a cousin who lives in Utah.

FRANK LEBARON: They did it to cause terror because that's how they control things, through terror, right? In our perspective, they were very aware of what they were doing. And what better way to show how ruthless they are than to attack the most innocent thing on this Earth - right? - babies, children, women.

ROSE: The LeBaron family lives in this area near the U.S.-Mexico border that is a major corridor for drug trafficking. Rhonita's sister, Adriana Jones says they saw the growing violence around them. But Adriana said nothing could have prepared them for this.

ADRIANA JONES: There was this idea that our innocence would protect us, that somehow because we were so completely uninvolved in any of it, that we were safe. I personally would tell my own husband when I would go home - because I would drive four hours on the Mexico border to go home - I don't want you on those roads. I'm like, nobody's going to mess with a mom and five children. Like, who would do such a thing? I - those exact words I used in an argument with him and said nobody is going to hurt us. We're not part of - we're not getting in their way, you know? Yeah, stuff was going on around us. But no, we never could have imagined the brutality of what happened to my sister and her four children, not in a thousand years.

SHAPIRO: I mentioned that the family was meeting with members of Congress this week. Tell us more about what they were doing here.

ROSE: Right. They're lobbying on Capitol Hill this week. And what they ultimately want is for the U.S. government to designate these drug cartels as terrorist organizations. That would give the U.S. government more tools to fight them. And it could also clear the way for the U.S. to send troops or drones into Mexico. I asked Brian LeBaron, another cousin from Utah, if he would support that.

B LEBARON: Our No. 1 position is that the sovereignty of Mexico must be respected. But I absolutely would welcome military aid, special ops especially - special missions. We need that to be able to go after these guys. It has been proven over and over that Mexico cannot handle this issue alone. It's an international crisis, and it will absolutely require an international solution.

SHAPIRO: What has the White House said about this idea of designating drug cartels as terrorists?

ROSE: Well, initially, President Trump was very much on board with this idea. Now the president has temporarily put the designation on hold, he says, at the request of Mexico's president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. And I should say that Lopez Obrador is not the only one who thinks this designation is a bad idea. I talked to Roberta Jacobson, a longtime U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Mexico until last year.

ROBERTA JACOBSON: I certainly understand the anger and the outrage of families of victims, whether they be American or Mexican, but this is not an effective tool to go after this kind of crime.

ROSE: Jacobson says there is a widespread perception in Mexico that the point of this designation is to pave the way for U.S. military intervention. And she says that idea is deeply unpopular in Mexico, so much so that sending in U.S. troops could jeopardize the cooperation of the Mexican government in the fight against cartels.

JACOBSON: Mexico will absolutely reject any kind of military action and become a fierce opponent of what you're trying to do instead of an ally in this fight.

ROSE: There's also an argument that the terrorism designation could undermine the Trump administration's immigration policies.

SHAPIRO: What do those two things have to do with each other?

ROSE: Well, the concern is that the designation could spark a whole new wave of asylum-seekers coming to the U.S. - Mexican asylum-seekers who could argue that, you know, their town is controlled by terrorists at a time when the Trump administration has been doing everything it can to stop the flow of asylum-seekers crossing the southern border.

And there's sort of another concern that's related to that that has to do with the policy called remain in Mexico, which forces asylum-seeking migrants to wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration courts. Critics say it's bad enough that the Trump administration is sending migrants fleeing from persecution back to these dangerous border towns that are controlled by cartels, but they argue it would be even more hypocritical to send them back to territory that's controlled by, quote-unquote, "terrorists."

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Joel Rose.

Thanks, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.