Mexico kidnapping

What happened to the four Americans ensnared in a deadly Mexico cartel kidnapping?

Four US citizens were ambushed and taken hostage in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, after crossing into Mexico for a cosmetic surgery procedure. Four days later, two of them were found dead and two were rescued. Andrea Blanco and Joe Sommerlad report

Thursday 09 March 2023 23:15 GMT
State police officers keep watch at the scene where authorities found the bodies of two of four Americans kidnapped by gunmen, in Matamoros, Mexico, March 7, 2023
State police officers keep watch at the scene where authorities found the bodies of two of four Americans kidnapped by gunmen, in Matamoros, Mexico, March 7, 2023 (REUTERS)

Four American citizens who were ambushed and kidnapped at gunpoint in Mexico have been found – two of them alive and two dead, according to officials.

Family members first identified the Americans as LaTavia “Tay” McGee, Shaeed Woodard, Zindell Brown and Eric James Williams, who had travelled from South Carolina so that Ms McGee could undergo a tummy tuck procedure.

Officials said the group crossed the US border into Mexico on 3 March. Not long after entering Matamoros – an area dominated by the Gulf cartel – they came under fire from a group of armed men and were bundled into the back of a pickup truck.

On Tuesday, Mexican authorities announced that two of the victims had been found dead, while two survivors, one injured and one unharmed, are now back in the US and in the care of the FBI.

At least one person has been arrested, according to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And the Gulf cartel has blamed five rogue members fro the abduction.

Here’s everything we know about the terrifying case so far.

Ambushed on arrival from Texas

According to the US Embassy & Consulates in Mexico, the group had crossed into the northeastern state of Tamaulipas on the Gulf Coast from Brownsville, Texas, on 3 March driving a white minivan with North Carolina licence plates.

Mexican authorities named the victims as MsMcgee, Mr Woodard, Mr Brown and Mr Williams. Barbara Burgess, 54, Ms McGee’s mother, told ABC News that it was her daughter who was visiting Mexico for the medical procedure and that her friends had tagged along to help share driving duties.

Shortly after they had entered the country, they were attacked by gunmen in the border city of Matamoros. After firing on the van, the attackers then moved the passengers to another vehicle and drove them away from the scene, the embassy said.

A photo purportedly shows the white minivan from which four Americans were abducted on 3 March 2023 in Matamoros, Mexico (Elefante Blanco)

“The information we have is that they crossed the border to buy medicines in Mexico, there was a confrontation between groups and they were detained,” the president said. “The whole government is working on it.”

An unnamed US official said the four Americans were not the intended targets and they had travelled to Matamoros for medical procedures. US officials familiar with the investigation told CNN that authorities believe a Mexican cartel mistook the victims for Haitian drug smugglers.

Two victims dead, two others back in the US

Mexican authorities confirmed on Tuesday that Ms McGee and Mr Williams have been returned to US officials at the Mexican border with Brownsville, Texas. Ms McGee was unharmed while Mr Williams suffered a gunshot wound on his right leg but is expected to recover.

Mr Woodard and Mr Brown were found dead. Their bodies will be repatriated once a forensic evaluation is finished in Mexico.

LaTavia McGee, abducted in Mexico last week, sits inside an ambulance after she was found alive in Ejido Longoreno (AP)

Photos by the Associated Press showed the moment the two survivors were rescued by Mexican authorities.

They were found at a stash house in a rural area east of Matamoros called Ejido Longoreño on the way to the local beach known as Playa Baghdad, a source close to the investigation told the Associated Press (AP).

A suspect, 24-year-old Jose “N,” has been arrested. The man was tasked with making sure the victims didn’t escape during the three-day kidnapping and he was captured at the scene on Tuesday, Mr Villareal said.

Shaeed Woodard was identified as one of the two Americans killed in Mexico (Shaeed Woodard/Facebook)

Mexican Gulf drug cartel boss ‘La Kena’ linked to attack

Sources close to the government told local outlet Milenio that investigators are considering whether Jose Alberto Garcia Vilano, known as “La Kena,” is linked to the deadly abduction of four US nationals on 3 March.

Vilano’s whereabouts remain unknown since Mexican officials put out a reward for his capture in April 2022.

In September, Mexican authorities raised the reward for information that leads to the capture of “La Kena” to MXN$2.5m (US$138,000). Officials in the cartel-ridden area say that Vilano is associated with The Cyclones, the most prominent cell of the Gulf drug cartel in Matamoros.

Vilano, one of the most prominent members of The Cyclones, is accused of being in charge of gruesome execution-style killings against other cells of the Gulf drug cartel, known as Escorpiones, Metros y Pantera, per Mexican outlet La Reforma.

Jose Alberto Garcia Vilano, known as “La Kena” (Fiscalia de Tamaulipas)

The governor of Tamaulipas, Américo Villarreal, previously said during a press conference that the group was moved from different locations, including a clinic, during the three days that their kidnapping lasted in an attempt to throw off investigators.

Mr Villareal said that the Gulf cartel is known to operate and control the area. Tamaulipas attorney general Irving Barrios Mojica also said that Mexican officials believe members of the Gulf drug cartel are behind the attack.

At an early press conference on Tuesday, President López Obrador claimed that the tragedy will be seized by the American media to portray Mexico as a dangerous country, in stark contrast with their “silence when Mexicans are killed in the US.”

He went on to say that GOP politicians will also use the crime as an opportunity to push “their agenda.”

“We continue to work every day towards peace and are very sorry that this has happened in our country,” the president said.

“We send our condolences to the victims’ friends and family and the American people. And we will continue to work towards peace.”

Mexican drug cartel ‘apologises’ for deadly kidnapping

An unnamed Tamaulipas state law enforcement official provided a letter believed to be authored by the Gulf drug cartel to the Associated Press. In it, the criminal organisation promised to turn over five men who kidnapped the group of Americans.

The Americans were on their way to the office of a plastic surgeon in Matamoros when they were ambushed by several gunmen. Ms McGee and Mr Williams survived the attack and are in the US, but Woodard and Brown were killed by the time Mexican authorities found them on Tuesday.

The Gulf drug cartel has now said that the kidnappers went against the group’s rules of “respecting innocent people’s life.” The letter apologised to residents of Matamoros who witnessed the shooting, the families of the American victims and of a Mexican woman who died after she was caught in the gunfire.

A picture of the five alleged suspects face down on the pavement and with their hands tied was also shared with the AP. They were later found by Mexican law enforcement, another official who also spoke under the condition of anonymity told the outlet.

(Reynosa Codigo Rojo/Facebook)

“We have decided to turn over those who were directly involved and responsible in the events, who at all times acted under their own decision-making and lack of discipline,” the letter reads, according to the AP.

Mexico prosecutors have not confirmed new arrests in the case.

Mr Williams’ cousin told the AP that the kidnapping survivor has not accepted the apology from the cartel.

“It ain’t gonna change nothing about the suffering that we went through,” Jerry Wallace said, noting that US and Mexico officials must address the rampant violence stemming from cartel operations.

(Reynosa Codigo Rojo/Facebook)

An extended version of the letter shared by local media also read: “The Gulf drug cartel Scorpion section decries the attack on 3 March, in which a working [Mexican] mother was killed and four American citizens were kidnapped. Two of them were also killed.

“ [The five members] went against the Gulf drug carter’s rules of respecting the life and integrity of innocent people. We apologise to residents of Matamoros ... and the American families affected.”

“The Gulf cartel asks the community to be calm because we’re committed to ensuring that these types of mistakes are not made ever again and making those who are guilty pay.”

Mexico officials probing criminal records of Americans

Court documents filed by prosecutors and reviewed by Reuters show that among the lines of inquiry pursued by officials is the possibility that the US nationals abducted on 3 March were mistaken for drug smugglers by cartel members.

In the filings on Wednesday, local and state officials flagged Brown and Woodard’s past drug convictions in the US, adding that “it cannot be ruled out that the attack against (the Americans) could be directly linked to drug trafficking operations.”

Public records in South Carolina show that Woodward had five drug convictions between 2007 and 2016, while Brown was found guilty of marijuana possession twice in 2015.

Mexican authorities have not publicly said whether they’re investigating the victims’ motive to travel to Mexico.

Video purports to show abduction

A video widely shared on social media, allegedly filmed in the city on Friday, shows people being dragged and dumped into the rear of a white flatbed truck parked in the middle of a busy street by armed men wearing bulletproof jackets.

The video has not been officially verified and the FBI has made no public comment on it.

Matamoros is notorious as a centre for gang violence and illegal migrant smuggling.

(The Independent/Datawrapper)

Tamaulipas state police said on its social media channel that people had been killed and injured in two shootouts in Matamoros on Friday in which neither the military nor police had been involved but did not offer any further detail on the shootings or say whether the kidnappings were connected.

“There have been two armed incidents between unidentified civilians,” it said. “The exact number of the fallen is being corroborated.”

Photographs of the abandoned car, with visible bullet holes, have since been released.

A member of the Mexican security forces stands next to the white minivan belonging to the four kidnapped Americans in Matamoros (AP)

Fifth American tourist reveals lucky escape

Cheryl Orange was part of the group of American childhood friends who drove from South Carolina to the border in Texas last week so that Ms McGee could get a tummy tuck procedure.

Ms Orange told The Associated Press that she had forgotten to bring an identification card on the trip and so she was denied passage across the border.

That missing ID may well have saved her life.

While she stayed behind at a motel in Brownsville, her friends continued onward with their journey.

Relatives say they warned victims about dangerous trip

Before receiving news of Mr Brown’s death on Monday, her mother Christina Hickson told WPDE that her son had gone on the trip to support a friend having a medical procedure in Mexico and said she recognised him in footage of the shocking incident.

“I knew immediately that was him. And you know even when I watch them placing them on the back of the truck. I was able to follow each one as they would be placed on the truck,” Ms Hickson said.

“The waiting is the worse part. It has its advantages and disadvantages. But, however, no news is good news. That’s the way I’m staying with it. No news is good news and that’s what will give me the audacity to.”

Ms McGee’s mother Barbara Burgess said she was worried about her daughter going and warned her it might not be safe. But, her daughter brushed off her concerns telling her: “Ma, I’ll be okay”.

LaTavia McGee (Family Handout)

Ms Burgess last heard from Ms McGee on Friday when she called to say that they were just 15 minutes from the cosmetic surgeon’s office where she was scheduled to have the procedure that day. She never heard from her daughter again.

Ms Burgess said she tried calling Ms McGee later that day but her phone went straight to voicemail.

Not long later, she said she received a visit from an FBI agent, revealing what had happened.

Mr Brown’s sister Zalandria Brown told the AP: “This is like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from.”

Official response

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday that any attacks on American citizens under any circumstances were unacceptable.

Ms Jean-Pierre said more information will be released after family members of the two fatal victims and two kidnapping survivors are updated by US officials on any developments made in the case. She also noted that the Biden administration remains committed to “disrupting transnational criminal organizations including Mexican drug cartels and human smugglers.”

“We remain committed to applying the full weight of our efforts and resources to counter them,” Ms Jean-Pierre said.

“Right now. our immediate concerns are for the safe return of our citizens, the health and well-being of those who survived this attack, and the support which must be rendered to the families of those who need it.”

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also decried the attack on the American citizens and vowed to get justice for their families.

“We appreciate the hard work of the Justice Department the FBI and the DEA and the Department of Homeland Security… we’re grateful for their swift response to this dreadful incident and for their continued collaboration with Mexican authorities,” Mr Kirby told reporters.

“We’re going to work closely with the Mexican government to ensure that justice is done in this case.”

When asked whether the White House was considering policy changes in response to the attack, Mr Kirby said that there were no immediate remedies but insisted US authorities are working extensively to get the fatal victim’s bodies and the survivors back on American soil.

”Right now our focus is very squarely on these four Americans and the families that have been affected by the attack and I think you’ll hear more from the Justice Department as they learn more and can have more to share,” he added. “But it’s just too soon for me to be able to speak to any policy changes or, or vectors as a result of this attack.”

Ken Salazar, the US ambassador to Mexico, revealed in a statement that an innocent Mexican bystander had also been killed in the incident and declared: “We have no higher priority than the safety of our citizens. This is the most fundamental role of the US government.”

Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Fox News that he would introduce legislation to “set the stage” for using military force in Mexico to combat the drug cartel.

Mr Graham made the remarks on Jesse Watters’s show on Monday evening, saying he would “introduce legislation to make certain Mexican drug cartels foreign terrorist organizations under US law and set the stage to use military force if necessary.”

“I would put Mexico on notice,” Mr Graham said. “If you continue to give safe haven to drug dealers, then you are an enemy of the United States.”

Taking military action in Mexico would require an Authorisation of the Use of Military Force in Congress, which would in turn need to pass both houses of Congress.

Americans advised against travelling

The US State Department has advised Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas due to the risk of crime and kidnapping, with the region featuring on its “Level 4: Do Not Travel” list.

The US Consulate in Matamoros issued a warning to its employees on Friday in response to the latest outbreak of violence.

Anyone with information is urged to contact the FBI San Antonio Division at 210-225-6741 or to submit tips anonymously online here.

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