Four Americans were caught in a drug cartel shootout in Mexico with two killed and the others held captive for days in a remote region before being rescued.
Their minivan crashed and was fired on shortly after they crossed into the border city of Matamoros in Tamaulipas state on Friday. A stray bullet also killed a Mexican woman nearby.
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The four Americans were hauled off in a pick-up truck. Mexican authorities frantically searched as the cartel allegedly involved moved them around – even taking them to a medical clinic – “to create confusion and avoid efforts to rescue them”, Tamaulipas Governor Américo Villarreal said.
They were found on Tuesday in a wooden shack guarded by a man who was arrested. American police were not involved in the search operation.
Here is what we know so far:
Why were the Americans in Mexico?
News reports say the group included Eric Williams, Latavia McGee, Shaeed Woodard, and Zindell Brown. Woodard and Brown were killed.
A relative of one of the victims said the four travelled together from the Carolinas so one could have cosmetic surgery performed by a doctor in Matamoros.
“This is like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from,” said Zalandria Brown, Zindell’s older sister.
What happened to the Americans?
Video and photographs taken during and immediately after the attack show the Americans’ white minivan sitting beside another vehicle, with at least one bullet hole in the driver’s side window. A witness said the two vehicles collided. Almost immediately, several men with tactical vests and assault rifles arrived in another vehicle to surround the scene.
Reports suggest the abductions may have been a case of mistaken identity. The Mexican authorities’ hypothesis is “it was confusion, not a direct attack”.
The gunmen walked one of the Americans into the bed of a white pick-up, then dragged and loaded up the three others. Terrified civilian motorists sat silently in their cars, hoping not to draw attention. Two of the victims appeared to be motionless.
Who is to blame?
US Attorney General Merrick Garland put blame for the deaths squarely on Mexican drug cartels. “The DEA and the FBI are doing everything possible to dismantle and disrupt and ultimately prosecute the leaders of the cartels and the entire networks that they depend on,” Garland said.
The FBI offered a $50,000 reward for the victims’ return and the arrest of the abductors.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the people responsible would be punished, referencing arrests in the 2019 killings of nine US-Mexican dual citizens in Sonora near the border.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price thanked Mexican authorities for the rescue. “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.
Where are they now?
The surviving Americans were whisked back to US soil on Tuesday in Brownsville, the southernmost tip of Texas and just across the border from Matamoros. A convoy of ambulances and SUVs was escorted by Mexican military Humvees and National Guard trucks with mounted machine guns.
The survivors were taken to Valley Regional Medical Center with an FBI escort, the Brownsville Herald reported. Villarreal said Williams was shot in the left leg and the injury was not life threatening.
The bodies of Woodard and Brown will be turned over to US authorities following forensic work at the Matamoros morgue.
What is the situation in Matamoros?
Matamoros has a population of about 500,000 and is located across the Rio Grande from Brownsville.
The shootings illustrate the terror that has prevailed for years in Matamoros, a city dominated by factions of the powerful Gulf drug cartel that often fight among themselves. Amid the violence, thousands of Mexicans have disappeared in Tamaulipas state alone.
López Obrador complained about the US media’s “sensational” coverage, saying when Mexicans are killed they “go quiet like mummies”.
“We really regret that this happens in our country,” he said.