They were a tight-knit group of friends traveling from South Carolina so one of them could undergo a medical procedure
Two of the four Americans kidnapped by armed gunmen in the Mexico border city of Matamoros on Friday were found dead and two were found alive on Tuesday, US and Mexican officials said.
Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown were found dead, a US official familiar with the ongoing investigation told CNN. Their bodies will be examined by Mexican authorities prior to their remains being turned over to the US government, the official said.
Latavia Washington McGee, a mother of six, and Eric Williams survived the ordeal, according to the official. They were taken to a Texas hospital for treatment and observation. A Mexican government official said Washington McGee was found uninjured. Williams was shot twice in one leg and once in the other, his wife, Michele Williams, told CNN Tuesday.
One person has been detained in connection to the incident, Tamaulipas Governor Américo Villarreal said, but officials would not confirm whether the person is related to a criminal organization.
The victims were found in a “wooden house” in Matamoros and had been transferred to various places over the days “in order to create confusion and avoid rescue efforts,” Villarreal said.
The discovery of the Americans’ whereabouts comes days after the four were abducted at gunpoint in Matamoros in what is believed to be a case of mistaken identity.
The tight-knit group of friends traveled from South Carolina to Mexico so Washington McGee could undergo a medical procedure across the border Friday, but they never made it to the appointment, two family members told CNN.
The group crossed into Matamoros in the state of Tamaulipas, at about 9:18 a.m. Friday, Villareal said, but they got lost while trying to locate the medical clinic, according to Washington McGee’s close friend, who did not want to be identified. They reached out to the doctor’s office for directions on Friday but were struggling to communicate with the office because they had a poor cellphone signal.
After crossing the border, they were fired upon by unidentified gunmen, “placed in a vehicle and taken from the scene by armed men,” according to the FBI.
Investigators believe the Americans were targeted by a Mexican cartel that likely mistook them for Haitian drug smugglers, the US official said. The US citizens have no concerning criminal history that has been identified by investigators, the official said.
An innocent Mexican bystander was also killed in the encounter, US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said. The woman was hit by a stray bullet almost a block and a half from where the Americans were taken, Tamaulipas Gov. Américo Villarreal said on Tuesday.
Their abduction highlights the ongoing violence that has plagued some Mexican cities during the long-running Mexican drug war as well as the growing business of “medical tourism.”
Matamoros has a population of more than 500,000 people and is located just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. The US State Department has issued a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” advisory for US citizens thinking of going to Tamaulipas, citing crime and kidnapping.
Federal and local Mexican authorities were participating in the effort to locate the Americans and had set up a joint task force to communicate with US officials, Tamaulipas Attorney General Irving Barrios Mojica said.
US law enforcement was not involved on the ground in Mexico in the search for the missing Americans, Villarreal said at a news conference Tuesday.
Mexican officials displayed a timeline of the search, including photos of the cars believed to be used by the kidnappers, before they were found Tuesday morning. Mexico Secretary of Security Rosa Icela Rodríguez said that authorities in Mexico have been in constant communication with the US ambassador and other US officials since Sunday.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price thanked Mexican partners for facilitating the recovery of the Americans.
“Ultimately, we want to see accountability for the violence that has been inflicted on these Americans that tragically led to the death of two of them,” he said.
He also did not rule out designating drug cartels as terrorist organizations – something that some Republican lawmakers have called for – but said “we are always going to look at every tool that is by law or any other authority available to us to attempt to work with our Mexican partners to crack down on what is the threat to Mexicans and to Americans alike.”
This trip was the second time Washington McGee, a mother of six children, had gone to Mexico for a medical procedure, her mother, Barbara Burgess, said.
She traveled to the country for surgery about two to three years ago, Burgess said. But this time, Burgess was informed by the FBI on Sunday that her daughter had been kidnapped and was in danger.
Receipts found in the group’s vehicle indicated the Americans were in Mexico for medical procedures, a US official with knowledge of the investigation told CNN.
Washington McGee’s close friend told CNN the trip was for a cosmetic surgery. The group booked a hotel in Brownsville and planned to drive into Matamoros for the surgery, according to the friend.
A day after the kidnapping, the friend became concerned and reached out to the doctor’s office for more information.
“When I reached out to the doctor’s office they told me that Latavia had reached out to them to ask them for directions because she was lost,” the friend said. “They sent me a screenshot of the messages and they said they sent her the address and asked her if she was using a GPS.”
The disappearance of the four was reported to Brownsville police on Saturday, according to a police report. Cheryl Orange called police from a Motel 6 in Brownsville Saturday to report that the group had not been heard from since driving toward Matamoros in a rented minivan on Friday morning.
Orange, who told police she had stayed behind in the US because she did not have an ID with her, said the four had not been answering their cell phones.
The report states that Brownsville Police checked a local jail to make sure that no one in the party had been taken into custody, but no other action was taken.
The group of missing Americans grew up together in South Carolina and were bonded “like glue,” Brown’s sister Zalandria Brown told CNN. She added that she and her brother are also close.
“Zindell is like my shadow, he’s like my son, he’s like my hip bone. We’re just tight like that,” she said.
Mexico has become a particularly popular destination for “medical tourism,” attracting travelers who may be seeking cheaper alternatives or medical treatments that are unapproved or unavailable in the US. But the CDC warns the growing trend can carry dangerous risks depending on the destination and facility, including infection and possible post-procedure complications.
Matamoros, however, is “not considered a primary medical travel destination,” said Josef Woodman, the company’s founder, “largely because there are no internationally accredited medical centers/speciality clinics there, or in the immediate region.”
Washington McGee’s aunt, Mary McFadden, told CNN that when the family hadn’t heard from the group of friends by Sunday, they began searching online for any news related to their travel destination. Then, the family saw a video McFadden described as showing her niece being kidnapped.
“We recognized her and her blonde hair,” McFadden said. She said she also recognized her niece’s clothing from a live video Washington McGee had posted to Facebook earlier Friday.
“She is a mother and we need her to come back here for her kids,” she said, adding that Washington McGee’s children range in age from 6 to 18 years old.
A video obtained by CNN shows a woman and other unidentified people being roughly loaded into a white pickup truck. CNN has confirmed the video matches the incident but has not independently confirmed it is the four Americans shown in the video.
The video shared widely was filmed around 11:45 a.m., Villarreal said.
The video shows the woman being pulled or pushed onto the bed of the truck by two unidentified people as a third visibly armed man watches. The three men then appear to drag at least two limp people onto the truck bed, the video shows.
Additionally, photos obtained by CNN appear to show fragments of the scene where the situation occurred, including the car believed to have been driven by the Americans crashed with another vehicle before they were taken at gunpoint from the scene.
The US citizens were driving a white minivan with North Carolina plates, according to the FBI in San Antonio.
The FBI would not confirm the authenticity of the photos, but CNN has geolocated the images and confirmed their authenticity with a US official with knowledge of the investigation.
The photos also show a woman looking at and then sitting next to three people lying on the ground outside a white minivan. All the doors of the van are open. It is unclear whether the four people in the photos are the US citizens.
The woman then appears to have been loaded onto the bed of a white pickup truck, beside which several people can be seen lying on the street, the photos show.
One photo shows that an ambulance arrived, but it’s unclear if medical attention was being provided.