What happened to the four Americans ensnared in a deadly Mexico cartel kidnapping?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Gulf drug cartel ‘believed to be’ behind attack
The governor of Tamaulipas, Américo Villarreal, 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 “Clan del Golfo” is the cartel 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.”
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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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.”
When asked if the kidnapping of U.S. citizens in Mexico indicates that the White House needs to do more to tackle Mexican organized crime, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre "really wasn't willing to say or able to say what more the U.S. can do," CBS News' @nancycordes reports. pic.twitter.com/gHoxai4Eyf
— CBS News (@CBSNews) March 7, 2023
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.”
CBS News' @weijia talks to John Kirby, the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, about President Biden's visit to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Kirby says Biden came away from the visit "more informed about the needs down there." pic.twitter.com/6IW2L3Qtlx
— CBS News (@CBSNews) January 9, 2023
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.
Matamoros, Mexico: We received reports of police activity occurring in the vicinity of Calle Primera and Lauro Villar in connection to a shooting. U.S. government employees have been instructed to avoid the area until further notice. https://t.co/HmMr3HNJ9G pic.twitter.com/3pnP5cs0Jo
— Travel - State Dept (@TravelGov) March 3, 2023
Anyone with information is urged to contact the FBI San Antonio Division at 210-225-6741 or to submit tips anonymously online here.