(CNN) — Two Americans have returned to the US from Mexico and are being treated at a hospital after an armed kidnapping left two of their friends dead and spurred a days-long search for the travelers who had crossed the border for a medical procedure, officials say.
The four Americans were found in a “wooden house” in or near the Mexican border city of Matamoros, where they were kidnapped on Friday, Tamaulipas Governor Américo Villarreal announced Tuesday.
In the days they were missing, he said, the group had been taken to several places “to create confusion and avoid rescue efforts.”
Victims Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown were found dead at the scene, a US official familiar with the ongoing investigation told CNN. Their remains are expected to be repatriated to the US after a Mexican medical examiner completes a forensic examination to determine their causes of death, the source added.
The surviving travelers are Latavia Washington McGee, who had no injuries, and Eric Williams, who was wounded, Villarreal said.
Williams had been shot in the legs three times and was brought to a hospital in Texas to undergo surgery, his wife, Michele Williams, told CNN. Williams was emotional as he spoke to his wife on the phone, she said, explaining that he considered Woodard and Brown to be like his “brothers.” Their 11-year-old son was also happy to hear from his father, she said.
The FBI confirmed Tuesday that Williams and Washington McGee had been transported to a hospital in the US.
“I got my daughter and she’s alive,” Washington McGee’s mother, Barbara Burgess, told CNN affiliate WPDE. Washington McGee cried on the phone to her from the hospital, Burgess told the affiliate. “She watched two of them die. They [died] in front of her.”
The tight-knit group of friends had driven to Mexico from South Carolina so Washington McGee — a mother of six — could undergo a medical procedure in Matamoros, two family members told CNN.
But the group never made it to the doctor’s office on Friday, the family members said. Their car was intercepted by unidentified gunmen who fired upon the Americans, loaded them into a vehicle and took them from the scene, according to the FBI. A Mexican bystander was also killed at the scene by a stray bullet, Villarreal said.
Investigators believe the Americans were targeted by a Mexican cartel that likely mistook them for Haitian drug smugglers, a US official familiar with the investigation told CNN.
One person has been detained in connection with the two deaths who was undertaking “surveillance functions of the victims,” Villarreal said, but officials would not confirm whether the person is related to a criminal organization.
“Attacks on US citizens are unacceptable, no matter where or under what circumstances they occur,” National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said Tuesday. He said the US is working with the Mexican government “to ensure that justice is done in this case.”
“Right now, our immediate concerns are the safe return of our citizens, the health and the well-being of those who survived this attack,” Kirby said.
How the kidnapping and investigation unfolded
The four friends had booked a hotel in Brownsville, Texas, and were planning on driving across the border to Matamoros for Washington McGee to undergo a cosmetic surgery on Friday, Washington McGee’s close friend who did not want to be identified told CNN.
This was not the first time Washington McGee had traveled to Mexico for a procedure, her mother said. A few years ago, Burgess said, her daughter had a surgery done in Mexico, which has become a top destination for potentially risky “medical tourism,” attracting Americans who may be seeking more affordable care or treatments that are unavailable in the US.
The group crossed into Matamoros at about 9:18 a.m. Friday, Villarreal said.
After becoming lost on their way to the clinic, the friends tried to reach the doctor’s office for directions but were having difficulty because of a poor phone signal, the close friend said.
At some point as the friends were driving, unidentified gunmen fired upon their minivan and then loaded the Americans into their vehicle and took them away, according to the FBI. A Mexican official said Tuesday that the gunmen were driving a pickup truck.
A video obtained by CNN that matches the description of the incident shows a woman and other unidentified people being roughly loaded into a white pickup truck. 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 before the men appear to drag at least two limp people onto the truck bed. CNN has not independently confirmed it is the four Americans shown in the video.
When Mexican authorities arrived on the scene, they noticed the Americans’ van had North Carolina license plates and reached out to US officials, who were able to run the plates, according to Tamaulipas Attorney General Irving Barrios Mojica.
Investigators began processing vehicles, obtaining ballistics and fingerprint data, taking biological samples for genetic profiles and gathering surveillance camera footage, Mexican officials said.
Police were able to identify the gunmen’s truck, Barrios Mojica said. Officials then initiated “several searches” with different agencies, he said.
The Americans were finally found at a house outside Matamoros on Tuesday morning, the attorney general said. At the scene, two of the friends were dead — identified by a source as Woodard and Brown — while Washington McGee and Williams were still alive.
Though US law enforcement were not involved in the search on the ground, federal and local agencies in Mexico were cooperating in the effort and a joint task force was created to communicate with US officials, Barrios Mojica said.
In the state of Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located, the US State Department has issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory for US citizens, citing organized crime activity and kidnapping. It is among more than two dozen other states under some level of the State Department’s travel advisory, all of which cite crime as a reason for precautions.
Ongoing violence and organized crime activity has plagued some Mexican cities as part of the country’s long-running drug war.
Loved ones grew concerned after group stopped answering calls, texts
Several family members and friends have described to CNN the panic and worry that began to set in as more time passed and their calls and texts to the group went unanswered.
People had “been calling all of their phones and it’s just going to voicemail,” said Washington McGee’s friend, who did not want to be named. “I called her mom, too, and she told me she hasn’t been able to contact them either. That’s when I knew something was wrong.”
The friend said she reached out to the doctor’s office in Mexico on Saturday after hearing that the clinic had contacted Washington McGee’s cousin to say she never made it to her appointment.
“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.
By Sunday, Washington McGee’s family became so concerned that they began searching online for any news related to the group’s travel destination, her aunt Mary McFadden told CNN.
They came across a video that McFadden described as showing the kidnapping, and recognized her clothing, she said. “We recognized her and her blonde hair.”
“She is a mother and we need her to come back here for her kids,” she said Monday before Washington McGee had been found. She added that Washington McGee’s children range in age from 6 to 18 years old.
Another friend who said she had traveled to Texas with the group called police in Brownsville on Saturday to report that she hadn’t heard from the group since they left to drive to Matamoros the previous morning, according to a police report.
Brownsville Police checked a local jail to ensure no one in the party had been taken into custody, but no other action was taken, the report says.
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