The eight children, some mere infants, who survived the ambush in northern Mexico not only escaped the drug cartel gunmen who killed their mothers but managed to hide in the brush, with some walking miles to get help despite grisly bullet wounds.

In a testament to a mother's devotion, one woman reportedly stashed her baby on the floor of her Suburban and got out of the vehicle, waving her arms to show the gunmen she wasn't a threat. Her bullet-riddled body was found about 15 metres away.

The mother was one of nine US citizens — three women and six children, all living in northern Mexico — slaughtered Monday when gunmen opened fire on three SUVs along a dirt road in an attack that left one vehicle a burned-out, bullet-riddled hulk.

Mexican officials said the attackers may have mistaken the group's large SUVs for those of a rival gang. The Juarez drug cartel and its armed wing, known as "La Linea," or "The Line," are fighting a vicious turf war against a faction of the Sinaloa cartel known as the "Salazar."

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Mckenzie Langford, 9, pictured with her mum Dawna who was shot and killed in front of her.
Mckenzie Langford, 9, pictured with her mum Dawna who was shot and killed in front of her.

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"Those who attacked the occupants (of the vehicles), they let the children go, so that we can deduce that it was not a targeted attack" against the families, said army chief of staff Gen. Homero Mendoza.

Mendoza said the ambush consisted of two attacks more than an hour apart at two places along the road. He said that at 9.40am a Chevy Tahoe was hit by bullets and exploded in flames, and at 11am, two Suburbans — one carrying the mother and her baby — were hit by gunfire.

The five wounded children were flown to the border by Mexican authorities in a military helicopter to receive hospital care in the US Health authorities said they were in stable condition when they were transferred.

Three other children who were not wounded are in the care of family members in the hamlet of La Mora in northern Mexico.

Devin Langford, 13, walked for about 23km to find help after witnessing him mum and siblings being shot and killed.
Devin Langford, 13, walked for about 23km to find help after witnessing him mum and siblings being shot and killed.

The ambush took place in the remote, mountainous area of Sonora state.

Thirteen-year-old Devin Blake Langford, one of the few uninjured young people, quickly took charge, eventually walking about 23km back to La Mora for help, said Kendra Miller, a relative.

"After witnessing his mother and brothers being shot dead, Devin hid his six other siblings in the bushes and covered them with branches to keep them safe while he went for help," according to the relative's account. "When he took too long to return, his 9-year-old sister left the remaining five to try again."

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That girl, Mckenzie Rayne Langford, walked for hours in the dark before she was found several hours after the other children were rescued.

Christina Langford was shot dead but her baby daughter survived.
Christina Langford was shot dead but her baby daughter survived.

Altogether, the youngsters were on their own from about 11am until about 7.30pm, when they were rescued. Relatives from La Mora tried to reach them before that but were turned back by gunfire from the cartel gunmen.

In recordings of calls between the rescuers, they can be heard debating whether to risk more lives or wait an hour or two for Mexican army troops to arrive. It was an agonising decision.

What they saw when they found the children was terrifying.

Cody Greyson Langford, 8, had been shot in the jaw and bled profusely. Another girl had been shot in the foot and the back.

Rhonita LeBaron died along with four of her children. Photo / Supplied
Rhonita LeBaron died along with four of her children. Photo / Supplied

The killers were believed to from La Linea, whose gunmen had entered Sinaloa cartel territory the previous day and had set up an armed outpost on a hilltop near La Mora and an ambush farther up the road. The Juarez cartel apparently wanted to send a message that it controlled the road into Chihuahua state.

It was this invasion force that the American mothers drove into.

But it wasn't the cruelty of the cartels but the bravery, innocence and sacrifice of the victims that relatives wanted remembered.

Austin Cloes, a relative of the victims, said from his home in Salt Lake City that they loved their children and enjoyed their quiet lives based around a successful pecan farming operation.

Austin Cloes, a Utah relative of the Americans killed in Mexico, looks at a photo of the children in a hospital who survived the attack, during an interview on Tuesday. Photo / via AP
Austin Cloes, a Utah relative of the Americans killed in Mexico, looks at a photo of the children in a hospital who survived the attack, during an interview on Tuesday. Photo / via AP

"These sorts of people shouldn't just be buried without their names being put out there. These are great people," Cloes said.

The victims lived about 110km south of Douglas, Arizona, in La Mora, founded decades ago by 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.

All of the victims were apparently related to the extended LeBaron family in Chihuahua, whose members have run afoul of the drug traffickers over the years. Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who founded neighborhood patrols against cartels, was killed in 2009.

The group had set out to visit relatives in Chihuahua. One woman was headed to the airport in Phoenix to meet her husband.

Chihuahua state police officers man a checkpoint in Janos, Chihuahua state, northern Mexico following the massacre. Photo / AP
Chihuahua state police officers man a checkpoint in Janos, Chihuahua state, northern Mexico following the massacre. Photo / AP

While a drug-related violence has been raging for years in Mexico, the attack underscored the cartels' increasing indifference to the killing of children as collateral damage.

In August in Chihuahua, cartel gunmen fired 123 bullets at a man and also killed three girls, ages 4, 13 and 14. In June, a young boy was killed along with his father in Sonora. In July, a 10-year-old was killed during a robbery in Puebla state.

Officials said Tuesday that a suspect was arrested in the border city of Agua Prieta with assault rifles, but they later said the suspect apparently had not been involved in the ambush.

- AP