EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The families of nine American women and children killed in 2019 by members of a drug trafficking organization in Mexico will struggle to collect a $4.6 billion judgment a U.S. judge recently assessed on it, a security expert says.

That’s because the group – the Juarez cartel – is unlikely to volunteer to pay and has fractured to a shadow of the once-powerful organized crime alliance that dominated much of the illegal narcotics trade in Mexico in the 1990s.

“It’s going to be hard to find assets belonging to the Juarez cartel, seize them and provide the proceeds to the families. That’s just how it is, and it’s unfortunate,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of TorchStone Global, a U.S.-based security firm. “But at the same time, it is a symbolic victory for the family to have a U.S. court find the Juarez cartel/La Linea culpable in this wrongful death suit.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Clare Hochhalter recently awarded a combined $4.6 billion judgment under the Anti-Terrorism Act to the families of Christina Langford, Rhonita Miller, Dawna Ray and six children who were either shot or burned to death on Nov. 4, 2019, at a cartel highway checkpoint in Sonora, Mexico.

Court documents show La Linea the previous night had staged a raid on Sinaloa cartel rivals in Agua Prieta, across the border from Douglas, Arizona. La Linea withdrew to an area near the Sonora-Chihuahua border and set up a 9-mile defensive perimeter.

Three vehicles driven by the women passed through the checkpoints and were attacked. At least two of the women tried to exit the vehicles so there was little chance they were mistaken for rival drug traffickers; the third woman and her children were set on fire after the gunmen realized they were still alive inside their vehicle, court documents show.

The judge sided with the relatives of the victims in characterizing the killings as a deliberate act of terror against civilians on the part of the cartel to assert their control over the area and its population.

Border Report reached out to two relatives of the victims for comment and is awaiting a response.

Where the Juarez cartel stands today

Stewart has written extensively about the fracturing or “Balkanization” of the Mexican drug cartels. When a cartel leader is “taken out” or killed, his successor may not be able to hold the organization together and the organization fractures into smaller groups.

In the case of the Juarez cartel, the 1997 death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, a.k.a. “The Lord of the Skies,” resulted in a loss of influence and size for the organization. The drug lord’s nickname refers to his use of a fleet of Boeing aircraft to bring in drugs from South America. Being on the losing side of an all-out war with the Sinaloa cartel in the mid-2000s further reduced the Juarez cartel’s influence.

“The way we have seen the splintering of the Juarez cartel, it’s not what it was when the ‘Lord of the Skies’ was running things,” Stewart said. “It is no longer a very cohesive organization. You have these smaller cells and even street gangs like Los Aztecas acting under the umbrella name (Juarez cartel). It’s a bunch of groups working together or even just individuals working together.”

The influence of La Linea, the strongest group, is mostly confined to the state of Chihuahua. Even there it’s engaged in a battle for territory with Sinaloa cartel cells in the mountains of Western Chihuahua. Their other battlefront is in the Chihuahua-Sonora border for control of a drug corridor to Southeast Arizona. That is the conflict that led to the massacre of the nine Americans.

Stewart said individuals associated with the Juarez cartel umbrella likely have at least some assets in the United States including bank accounts for money laundering. However, the plaintiffs or the U.S. government would have to find those accounts and prove the individuals who control those accounts were linked to the massacre of the Americans. “I don’t see any names (in the lawsuit), all I see is the Juarez cartel,” he said.

Court documents state the gunmen who killed the women and children were led by two individuals identified as “Gil” and “El Tolteca.” The Mexican government has identified “El Tolteca” as Freddy Calles Romero; he remains jailed in Mexico on murder and organized crime charges. It’s not clear who “Gil” is.

Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., head of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso, said the trend among drug trafficking organizations in Mexico is away from a pyramidal structure and more compartmentalized.

“It’s a little more splintered,” Manjarrez said. In the past, “there’s a kingpin and the lieutenants and the whole bits. And as arrests have been made and killings have taken place, it’s splintered, it’s become more horizontal, almost subunits of a bigger company.”