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After deadly ambush, Sen. Mike Lee talks striking back at Mexican drug cartels

Men dig a mass grave for some of the women and children who were killed by drug cartel gunmen, before their burial at a family cemetery in La Mora, Sonora state, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. Three women and six of their children were gunned down in an attack while traveling along Mexico's Chihuahua and Sonora state border. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

“It was done deliberately, with knowledge they were killing women and children,” Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee said in an interview on the massacre earlier this month in Mexico.

Lee joined host Doug Wright on “The Doug Wright Show” with an update on the U.S. response to the killing of three women and six children, including 8-month-old twins, all U.S. citizen, in northern Mexico earlier this month.

Eight children were found alive after escaping from the vehicles and hiding in the brush — five of whom had gunshots wounds or other injuries.

Three SUVs were traveling along a dirt road and carrying a large family with dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship from a settlement in Sonora state when they were ambushed Nov. 4.  by drug cartel gunmen. The remote mountain region of La Mora, which is 70 miles south of Douglas, Ariz., is an area where the Sinaloa cartel has been engaged in a turf war.

A woman who jumped out of a vehicle and waved her arms to show she was not a threat was shot dead, according to family members and prosecutors.

La Mora was founded decades ago as an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many La Mora residents call themselves Mormons but are not affiliated with the church.

Mexican Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo said initially that the cartel gunmen may have mistaken the group’s large SUVs for those of rival gangs.

Sen. Lee disputes that charge.

“This wasn’t crossfire. This does not appear to me to be accidental,” he told Wright on Tuesday.

This probably is a territorial dispute between gangs, Lee said.

“What they have to gain by killing nine innocent women and children is beyond my ability to understand,” Lee said.

Will the U.S. do more than talk tough?

Wright said that the initial reaction from President Trump was strong.

“This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth,” President Trump tweeted.

“If Mexico needs or requests help in cleaning out these monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively,” the president continued.

But Wright reminded Lee that sometimes the early threats of retribution and swift, punitive action after a tragedy involving Americans abroad end up fading into the background.

“Do we have the will to do this?” Wright asked the senator.

“I am convinced that we have the will to do something. Early the next morning [after the attack], I got a call from the president. I have never seen the president more upset after this took place.”

“There will be consequences to the cartels for this action, and those consequences will be grave,” Lee told Wright.

“We’ve gone to war half a world away again and again for things that present a lot less of a clear and present threat to American national security than this one,” the senator said.

Lee said the U.S. has to prepare for Mexico becoming a failed state, which “could present grave humanitarian and national security crisis for the United States.”

Mexico needs to do more

Given the fact that Mexico is a big trading partner with the U.S. and also the state of Utah, Wright asked Lee whether Mexico was prepared to go after the drug cartels to preserve the safety of that partnership.

“They are not currently doing enough,” said Lee. “Please, President [Andrés Manuel López] Obrador, do something about this. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to like the consequences.”

After the massacre of the three American women and their six children, Lopez Obrador stood defiant amid mounting criticism of his government’s policy of “hugs, not bullets” to conquer the drug cartels.

“It was lamentable, painful because children died, but do we want to resolve the problem the same way? By declaring war?” he asked during his daily briefing Nov. 6. “That, in the case of our country, showed that it does not work. That was a failure. It caused more violence.”

Lee told Wright that Lopez Obrador’s “hugs, not bullets” policy was not enough to crush the cartels.

“We’ve got about $1.7 billion a day crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Both countries have far too much at stake to ignore this. So, President Lopez Obrador, hugs not bullets…is not going to cut it anymore.

“And if you continue with this absolutely ridiculous theory, that hugs not bullets is going to work, you’re not going to like the consequences. It’s going to get very, very ugly.”

“That’s one of the few things that could harm this very important relationship…I know Mexico doesn’t want that, and we don’t, either. And so I hope President Lopez Obrador will act in Mexico’s interest by helping us to get rid of these cartels,” Lee said.