In the days that followed, the victims were moved among at least three different locations by cartel members, said the governor of Tamaulipas state, Américo Villarreal.
By the time Mexican security forces located them in a “wooden house” on the outskirts of the city Tuesday morning, two of the Americans were dead and another was injured. The two survivors were returned to the border; Mexican media showed images of what appeared to be a man and a woman receiving treatment in an ambulance.
In a country that suffers an average of more than 80 homicides a day, where the murders and disappearances of individuals rarely make front-page news, the abduction, search for and discovery of the Americans have dominated Mexican media coverage.
The Biden administration, which doesn’t typically comment on insecurity in Mexico when it isn’t explicitly linked to drug trafficking, raised immediate concern, calling the crime “unacceptable” as the FBI, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies worked with their Mexican counterparts to find the victims.
Mexico’s organized-crime groups don’t ordinarily target U.S. citizens; they want to avoid drawing the ire of the U.S. government. While it is unclear how the events might affect U.S. security strategy, Mexico will now come under pressure to demonstrate an effort to crack down on the groups involved. One suspect has been detained.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his government will be thorough in its investigation of the kidnapping and killings. But he also expressed frustration at the level of attention the events have attracted, saying media outlets “are silent like mummies” when Mexicans are murdered in the United States.
There remained no clear explanation for why unarmed Americans who authorities said had no apparent ties to the drug trade would be targeted by organized criminals in Mexico. Michele Williams, the wife of one of the survivors, said the FBI told her that the four friends, who are Black, were mistaken for Haitians. Migrants are frequently kidnapped for ransom in Matamoros.
“I was glad that my husband was coming home, but I want to send condolences to the other family members who aren’t coming home,” Williams, the wife of Eric James Williams of Lake City, S.C., told The Washington Post.
Michele Williams said her husband, Latavia “Tay” McGee, McGee’s cousin Shaeed Woodard and friend Zindell Brown had traveled to Mexico because McGee was getting a tummy tuck.
The trip came together quickly, Williams said. Her husband, who is “willing to help anybody,” drove the rented Chrysler Pacifica.
Matamoros is controlled by factions of the Gulf cartel, whose consolidation of power there has generally improved security. (The most violent places in Mexico are typically those where multiple groups are battling for territory.)
Americans in Brownsville who had stopped crossing the border when violence in Matamoros surged around 2009 had begun returning for medical appointments, cheaper medicine or lunch. In January, Texas Monthly published a list of the city’s best taquerias.
But signs of the cartel presence have remained. In 2021, 37 migrants were kidnapped for 15 days on the outskirts of Matamoros. Last year, Mexican authorities suspended the exhumation of a clandestine mass grave after they were threatened by members of the cartel.
On Tuesday, Tamaulipas Attorney General Irving Barrios Mojica said the victims were rescued in an area where the Gulf cartel operates. He said he believed the abduction was a product of “confusion” rather than a targeted assault.
The most notorious recent massacre of Americans in Mexico came in November 2019, when nine women and children from a small American Mormon community in the northern state of Sonora were shot to death as they traveled along a desert highway in three cars. The assault, which investigators believe was probably a case of mistaken identity, prompted calls in mostly conservative U.S. political circles to send U.S. troops to Mexico.
“The cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army,” President Donald Trump tweeted at the time.
Republicans have now revived that talking point. “It’s time we authorize military force against” the cartels, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) tweeted Tuesday.
Villareal, the Tamaulipas governor, said local authorities had detained a 24-year-old man suspected of being in charge of guarding the victims.
López Obrador said there would be “no impunity” for the perpetrators. He said that Mexican authorities were “working and cooperating” with their U.S. counterparts in a “respectful” manner but that his government would not allow “foreign countries” to intervene in national issues.
Biden administration officials said they were focused on the health and well-being of the survivors, supporting the families of the dead, and bringing the perpetrators to justice. They have not publicly named the victims.
“We will do everything in our power to identify, find, and hold accountable the individuals responsible for this attack on American citizens,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
Video and photographs from the abduction verified by The Post show armed men forcing a woman into the back of the white pickup and dragging three other people. They leave a trail of what appears to be blood on the ground.
A fifth person can be seen lying on the sidewalk, apparently injured. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico said in a statement that “an innocent Mexican citizen” was killed in the confrontation.
A Mexican official said the Americans were found Tuesday morning in the village of Tecolote, about 15 miles from Matamoros. Barrios Mojica said they were found during a “joint search.” Mexican officials said the United States had provided intelligence.
The FBI offered a $50,000 reward for the victims’ return and the arrest of those responsible.
“This is like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from,” Zalandria Brown, a sister of Zindell, told the Associated Press before the deaths were announced.
Christina Hickson, the mother of 28-year-old Zindell Brown, told ABC affiliate WPDE in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that she identified her son from footage of the kidnapping shared online.
“I knew immediately that was him,” she said. “I was able to follow each one as they would be placed on the truck.”
Zalandria Brown said, “To see a member of your family thrown in the back of a truck and dragged, it is just unbelievable.”
McGee’s mother said she had not spoken with her daughter since Friday, when McGee called and said she was 15 minutes away from the doctor’s office.
“Her phone just started going to voice mail,” Barbara Burgess said.
Matamoros, home to 580,000 people, is the second-largest city in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, across the Rio Grande from Texas. It’s one of six Mexican states to which the State Department advises Americans against traveling, citing the risk of crime and kidnapping.
Kidnappings of American citizens in Tamaulipas are rare, but migrants are abducted with some frequency.
New York-based Human Rights First has recorded more than 8,700 reports of kidnappings and other violent attacks against migrants and asylum seekers expelled to or stuck in Mexican border cities while waiting to present their cases in U.S. courts.
Some Mexicans took to social media to compare the attention given to the abducted Americans and the swift, effective resolution by authorities with their relative inaction when it’s Mexicans or migrants who go missing.
“What do we need to do so that cases of kidnapping and disappearances in Mexico get investigated with the same celerity that (fortunately) the case of the four taken Americans was handled with?” asked Pascal Beltrán del Rio, the editorial director of the national newspaper Excélsior.
At the height of Mexico’s U.S.-backed drug war more than a decade ago, a series of migrant massacres in the city of San Fernando, roughly 85 miles south of Matamoros, underscored the barbarity of cartel violence and the vulnerability of migrants.
In 2010, authorities discovered the bodies of 72 Central American migrants who had been killed by the Zetas, a ruthless group that broke from the Gulf cartel. The following year, gunmen took at least 193 people off buses, bludgeoned them to death and dumped their bodies in dozens of clandestine graves.
An earlier version of this article misidentified Rosa Icela Rodríguez as the security secretary of Tamaulipas state. She is the federal security secretary of all Mexico. The article has been corrected.
Villegas and Brasch reported from Washington. Sands reported from London. Donna Cassata, John Hudson and Samuel Oakford in Washington contributed to this report.
*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.