Relatives of three Cleburne residents killed in a shooting spree Thursday in Mexico are scrambling through the Christmas weekend to get the surviving children home.
Maria Hartsell, 39, and daughters Karla Hartsell, 18, and Cristina Hartsell, 13, were among seven killed during what appeared to be a robbery spree on three buses in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz. Mexican authorities earlier identified the family by the name Sanchez Hernandez.
A 14-year-old nephew from Reynosa, Mexico, who had joined the Hartsells was also killed, said Margaret Schneider of Cleburne, the children's grandmother.
Angie Hartsell, 15, was also shot but was released from the hospital and later reunited with brother Mike Hartsell, 10, who wasn't injured but witnessed the attack.
Schneider said she worries about Angie Hartsell because she has Down syndrome and desperately needs medication.
"She survived, but it's a life-and-death situation if she doesn't take those medications," Schneider said. "We are trying to get them home as quick as we can."
Schneider said her husband was on his way to Mexico on Saturday to meet Maria Hartsell's brother and pick up the children.
"I am hoping there are no problems at the border," she said. "Their passports are lost, their luggage is lost and Angie has no medication." Schneider said she learned that Maria Hartsell, her daughter-in-law, was shot in the head and that her two daughters were shot while trying to protect their mother.
"I'm just kind of numb right now," Schneider said. "I've went through all of the emotional part; now I'm just numb."
Buses in Mexico have been targeted by drug cartels in recent years, and the U.S. State Department has long told Americans that carjacking and highway robbery are "serious problems" throughout much of the Texas-Mexico border region.
Maria Cardona, a friend who attends church with the Hartsell family at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Cleburne, said a memorial service is being planned for next year. Because of cost, burials will take place in Mexico, she said.
'I can't believe it'
Cardona said Maria Hartsell, who worked at an elementary school cafeteria in Cleburne, was a loving, caring person who enjoyed spending time with her children and would help anyone in need.
"She loved everybody, and she was such a hard worker. She had troubles like the rest of us, but she was always happy," Cardona said.
She said that for the last three or four years, Maria Hartsell had refrained from going to Mexico because of the violence.
"She missed her mom and her brothers and sisters. She heard it was safer and not quite as bad and said, 'We'll be all right,'" Cardona said. "I can't believe it. ... They were just a few hours from her mom's house."
Cardona said Karla Hartsell, a senior at Cleburne High School, wanted to go to school to be a pharmacy technician after she graduated.
"She was so excited; Cristina was even preparing a graduation party for her," Cardona said. "They were all happy, outgoing and friendly. It was just a joy to be around them. ... To lose three family members, and the horrible way they died, it's just awful."
Drug cartels in region
Other bus passengers killed in the attacks were a young Mexican couple who left behind a 3-month-old boy who survived. A bus driver was also killed.
Five gunmen who allegedly carried out the attacks were later killed by soldiers.
Earlier in their spree, the gunmen shot three people to death and killed a fourth with a grenade in the nearby town of El Higo, Veracruz, authorities said.
While the specific area where the Thursday attacks occurred is not frequented by foreign travelers, other parts of Huasteca -- a hilly, verdant area on the coast -- are popular among Mexican tourists and some foreigners.
The attack occurred near the border with the state of Tamaulipas, an area that has been the scene of bloody battles between the Zetas and Gulf drug cartels.
It was hardly the first time buses had been targeted.
In one of the most horrific incidents, the Houston Chronicle reported in June that a drug cartel-connected trafficker said fellow gangsters kidnapped bus passengers and forced them into gladiatorlike fights to groom fresh assassins.
The trafficker said the cartel killed the elderly and raped young women in addition to giving men hammers, machetes and sticks and forcing them to fight to the death.
The trafficker also said members of the Zetas cartel have pushed passengers into an ancient Roman-like blood sport with a modern Mexican twist that they call, "Who is going to be the next hit man?"
The victims are likely among the hundreds of people found in mass graves in recent months, he said. About 85 miles from Brownsville in the vicinity of the Mexican city of San Fernando, nearly 200 bodies were unearthed from pits, and authorities said most appeared to have died from blunt-force trauma to the head.
Many are believed to have been dragged off buses traveling through Mexico.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.