At least six children and three women living in a Mormon community of U.S. citizens in Mexico were shot to death Monday and five children were injured after their convoy came under fire during a brazen daylight ambush believed to have been carried out by gunmen affiliated with organized crime in the country. One child is missing.
Those attacked were members of the LeBaron family, a well known American clan who have lived in the fundamentalist community in the northern part of the country for decades, according to the New York Times. Kenny LeBaron, a cousin to several of the victims, told the Times he feared the death toll could increase.
“When you know there are babies tied in a car seat that are burning because of some twisted evil that’s in this world,” LeBaron said, “it’s just hard to cope with that.”
Appearing on "Fox & Friends" with hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade, Gingrich said that he thinks the U.S. has been "hiding from reality" when it comes to the power of Mexican drug cartels and their chokehold on the Mexican government.
More than a dozen other members of La Mora — a decades-old settlement in Sonora state founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — were missing after the attack on the convoy of three SUVs, a relative told The Associated Press.
Early reports indicated the tragedy could have been a case of mistaken identity. But recent history also raises the possibility the LeBaron family was the intended target: only a decade ago two members of the family opposed to local drug trafficking groups were kidnapped and murdered, according to the Times.
Relatives claim that cartel members kidnapped surviving church members after the initial shootout.
"Mexico is a vital American interest. And, our desire to make sure the Mexican government defeats the cartels, should be enormous," Gingrich told the "Friends" hosts.
"And," he said, "I hope this will be a wake-up call -- that we had better find a way to have a partnership with the Mexican government and help them with whatever intelligence training equipment they need to decisively defeat the cartels who are now, frankly, a state within a state."
The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying, “The safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad is among the Department of State’s top priorities. When a U.S. citizen is missing or passes away overseas, we engage with local officials at multiple levels and provide all appropriate consular assistance," according to Salt Lake City, Utah’s KSL-TV.
The U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landrau, tweeted in Spanish that he was following the incident closely and that "the security of our co-nationals is our great priority."
Gingrich said he believes that the Mexican government -- "like Lebanon" -- is unable to control its own territory and because it's our "next-door neighbor" we have a "huge interest."
"And, much bigger than we do in Syria or a lot of the places we pay attention to. Mexico's a much more important part of our future than those countries are," he explained.
Fox News' Danielle Wallace and The Associated Press contributed to this report.