(CNN) – Two Americans have returned to the U.S. 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 travelers crossing the border for a medical procedure, officials say. .
The four Americans were found in a “wooden house” near the Mexican town of Matamoros, where they were kidnapped on Friday, Tamaulipas Governor Américo Villarreal announced on Tuesday.
On the days they were missing, he said, the group was taken to various 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. His remains are expected to be repatriated to the US after a Mexican coroner completes a forensic examination to determine the causes of death, the source added.
The surviving travelers are Latavia Washington McGee, who was uninjured, and Eric Williams, who was injured, Villarreal said.
Williams was shot three times in the legs and taken to a Texas hospital to undergo surgery, his wife, Michele Williams, told CNN. Williams was thrilled to speak with his wife on the phone, she said, explaining that he considered Woodard and Brown to be his “brothers”. The 11-year-old son was also happy to hear from his father, she said.
The FBI confirmed on Tuesday that Williams and Washington McGee were transported to a hospital in the United States.
“I have my daughter and she is alive,” Washington McGee’s mother, Barbara Burgess, told CNN affiliate WPDE. Washington McGee cried on the phone with her from the hospital, Burgess told the affiliate. “She saw two of them die. They [died] in front of her.”
The close-knit group of friends had driven from South Carolina to Mexico 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, family members said. Their car was intercepted by unidentified gunmen who shot the Americans, put them in a vehicle and drove them away, according to the FBI. A Mexican passer-by 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 traffickers, a US official familiar with the investigation told CNN.
One person was detained in connection with the two deaths who was carrying out “victim surveillance duties”, Villarreal said, but authorities have not confirmed whether the person is related to a criminal organization.
“Attacks against US citizens are unacceptable no matter where or under what circumstances they occur,” National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said on Tuesday. He said the US is working with the Mexican government “to ensure that justice is done in this case.”
“At this time, our immediate concerns are the safe return of our citizens and the health and well-being of those who survived this attack,” said Kirby.
How the kidnapping and investigation unfolded
The four friends had booked a hotel in Brownsville, Texas, and were planning to drive across the border to Matamoros for Washington McGee to undergo cosmetic surgery on Friday, a close friend of Washington McGee who declined to be named told CNN.
This isn’t the first time Washington McGee has traveled to Mexico for a procedure, his mother said. A few years ago, Burgess said, her daughter had surgery in Mexico, which has become a top destination for potentially risky “medical tourism,” attracting Americans who may be seeking more affordable care or treatment that isn’t available in the US.
The group crossed into Matamoros around 9:18 am on Friday, Villarreal said.
After getting lost on the way to the clinic, the friends tried to get to the doctor’s office to get information but were having difficulty due to poor phone signal, the close friend said.
At some point, as the friends were driving, unidentified gunmen shot at their minivan and then loaded the Americans into their vehicle and drove them away, according to the FBI. A Mexican official said on Tuesday that the gunmen were driving a pickup truck.
Video obtained by CNN that matches the description of the incident shows a woman and other unidentified people being loaded into a white pickup truck. Video shows the woman being pulled or pushed into the bed of the truck by two unidentified people while a third, visibly armed man watches on before the men appear to drag at least two limp people into the bed of the truck. CNN has not independently confirmed who are the four Americans shown in the video.
When Mexican authorities arrived at the scene, they noticed that the Americans’ van had North Carolina plates and reached out to U.S. authorities, who were able to verify the plates, according to Tamaulipas Attorney General Irving Barrios Mojica.
Investigators began processing vehicles, obtaining ballistics data and fingerprints, collecting biological samples for genetic profiling and collecting footage from surveillance cameras, Mexican officials said.
The police were able to identify the gunmen’s truck, said Barrios Mojica. Authorities then launched “multiple searches” with different agencies, he said.
The Americans were finally found at a house on the outskirts of 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.
While US law enforcement was not involved in the search at the scene, federal and local agencies in Mexico were cooperating in the effort, and a joint task force was created to communicate with US authorities, Barrios Mojica said.
In the state of Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located, the US Department of State issued a “Do Not Travel” notice to US citizens, citing organized crime activity and kidnappings. Is between more than two dozens of other states under some level of State Department travel advisory, all of which cite the crime as a precautionary reason.
Ongoing violence and organized crime activity has plagued some Mexican cities as part of the country’s long-running drug war.
Loved ones were worried after the group stopped answering calls and texts
Several family members and friends described to CNN the panic and concern that began to set in as time passed and their calls and texts to the group went unanswered.
People “called all their phones and it just went to voicemail,” said Washington McGee’s friend, who declined to be identified. “I called her mom too, and she told me she couldn’t reach them either. That’s when I knew something was wrong.”
The friend said she went to the doctor’s office in Mexico on Saturday after hearing that the clinic had contacted Washington McGee’s cousin to say that she did not show up for her appointment.
“When I contacted the doctor’s office, they told me that Latavia came to them asking for information because she was lost,” said the friend.
On Sunday, Washington McGee’s family became so concerned that they began searching online for any news related to the group’s travel destination, his aunt Mary McFadden told CNN.
They found a video that McFadden described as showing the kidnapping and recognized her clothes, she said. “We recognize her and her blonde hair.”
“She is a mother and we need her to come back here for her children,” she said on Monday, before Washington McGee was found. She added that Washington McGee’s children range in age from 6 to 18.
Another friend who said she traveled to Texas with the group called police in Brownsville on Saturday to report that she had not heard from the group since they left for Matamoros the previous morning, according to a police report.
Brownsville police checked a local jail to ensure none of the group had been arrested, but no further action was taken, the report says.
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