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‘Symbolic’ $4.6B punishment against cartel that murdered Americans takes creative legal turn to become reality

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The $4.64 billion fine for the massacre of American women and children by Mexican drug cartels was considered symbolic.

The families of the victims, who ranged from an eight-month-old baby to a 43-year-old mother, were not expected to receive a single penny.

But the Motley Rice law firm, which is representing the families, has filed more than 1,200 lawsuits in federal court over cash and assets seized by U.S. law enforcement during operations against Mexican drug traffickers, Bloomberg Law first reported.

While the lawyers had been slowly making progress toward reaching their $4.64 billion goal on individual claims ranging from thousands to millions of dollars, federal prosecutors in New York challenged the law firms’ legal tactics.

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Clockwise from top left: Donna Langford, Trevor Langford, Logan Langford, Christina Marie Langford Johnson, Crystal Miller, Lonita Maria Miller, twins Titus and Tianna, and Howard Miller. (GoFundMe)

Mexican cartel 2019 murders victim's mother

Christina Marie Langford Johnson, 31, holds her 7-month-old baby, Faith, who miraculously survived the attack. ()

In November 2019, the Juarez Cartel attacked three mothers and 14 children, all U.S. citizens, in Sierra Alta, Sonora, Mexico.

Cartel members fired hundreds of bullets into the Americans’ car.

Juarez Cartel ordered to pay more than $4 billion in damages in deaths of U.S. mothers and children

The mother and her four children survived the barrage of bullets, but their car was deliberately set on fire and all five died in the blaze.

In total, three women and six children died.

People hug at Langford's funeral

Mourners attend the funeral of Donna Rae Langford, 43, and her sons Trevor, 11, and Logan, 2, who were killed by drug cartel gunmen, at the family cemetery in La Mora, Sonora, Mexico, on November 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Victims of Mexican cartels

David Langford is comforted by his wife, Donna Rey, and their two sons during the funeral in La Morra, Mexico, on November 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

A federal lawsuit under anti-terrorism laws was filed on behalf of the victims’ families in North Dakota, where most of the victims lived.

According to court documents, the judge ultimately ordered the company to pay $4.64 billion in damages to the plaintiffs in June 2022 after a four-day bench trial.

“The heinous massacre on Nov. 4, 2019 constituted an act of terrorism,” lawyers from the law firm Motley Rice said in a Feb. 9 court filing in the New York case.

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Motley Rice has filed more than 1,200 lawsuits in federal courts across the U.S. to recover assets and cash seized during drug trafficking busts in Mexico.

Many of the claims, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, have been settled and turned over.

Ovidio Guzman's shootout

A truck burns on a road in Culiacan, Sinaloa, January 5, 2023. Mexican security forces arrested Ovidio Guzman, a suspected drug trafficker wanted by the U.S. and one of the sons of former Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, in a pre-dawn operation that sparked gun battles and roadblocks across the western state capital. (AP Photo/Martin Urista)

But Motley Farm hit a brick wall in pursuing $6.25 million seized by the federal government in a massive 2021 money laundering bust in the Southern District of New York.

Lead prosecutor Damien Williams argued in opposition court papers that there was no connection between the money laundering scheme uncovered by federal agents and the 2019 mass murder.

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“The United States has a vested interest in the forfeited assets,” Williams wrote in his response Feb. 15. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs “could impair or impede the ability of the United States to protect its interests in the forfeited assets.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York moved to dismiss the forfeiture case, effectively suspending the proceedings until a higher court rules.

Motley Farm declined to comment pending a decision.

mexican cartel guns marines

Mexican marines escort five suspected drug traffickers from the Seta drug cartel past RPG-7 rocket launchers, grenades, guns, cocaine and military uniforms seized from alleged members of the Seta drug trafficking cartel and presented to reporters at the Navy Secretary’s Palace in Mexico City on June 9, 2011. (Yuri Cortes/AFP via Getty Images)

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The latest update on the New York forfeiture case was filed May 9, when the case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein.

New York’s attempt to dismiss the case conflicts with a Feb. 23 ruling in Ohio that ordered $9.93 million in assets seized in a June 2023 raid to be paid to victims’ families, according to court documents.

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University of Pennsylvania professor Louis Rulli told Bloomberg Law that the federal judges’ conflicting rulings could be a part of Motley Law’s bigger picture strategy.

“While appeals courts that have heard these issues have ruled in the government’s favor, the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet spoken on the issues raised by Motley Rice,” said Lurie, who specializes in forfeiture law.

Diagram of Mexican cartels in the United States

According to the DEA, Mexico’s “most powerful and ruthless” drug cartels operate in all 50 states. (DEA’s 2024 National Drug Threat Assessment)

Bloomberg Law also spoke with Stephen Casella, a former federal prosecutor who runs a consulting firm that specializes in asset forfeiture law.

Casella told the outlet he agreed with the New York federal prosecutors’ position.

“This isn’t an opportunity for anyone to come and say, ‘I don’t like that guy, he owes me money,'” Casella said.

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Both sides are awaiting Stein’s final decision.

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