A road trip to Mexico for cosmetic surgery veered violently off course when four Americans were caught in a drug cartel shootout, leaving two dead and two held captive for days in a remote region of the Gulf coast before they were rescued from a wood shack, on Tuesday.
The surviving Americans were whisked back to U.S. soil on Tuesday in Brownsville, the southernmost tip of Texas and just across the border from Matamoros. The convoy of ambulances and SUVs was escorted by Mexican military Humvees and National Guard trucks with mounted machine guns.
The governor said the wounded American, Eric Williams, had been shot in the left leg and the injury was not life threatening.
The two dead — Shaeed Woodard, age 33, and Zindell Brown, in his mid-20s — will be turned over to U.S. authorities following forensic work at the Matamoros morgue.
The Americans traveled into Mexico on Friday, arriving in Matamoros, in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas just south of Brownsville, Texas.
Video and photographs taken during and immediately after Friday’s abduction 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 had collided. Almost immediately, several men with tactical vests and assault rifles arrived in another vehicle to surround the scene.
The Mexican authorities’ hypothesis is “that it was confusion, not a direct attack,”.
The gunmen walked one of the Americans into the bed of a white pickup, 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.
The four Americans were identified as Zindell Brown, Eric James Williams and cousins Latavia “Tay” McGee and Shaeed Woodard.
During the three days they were held, the Americans were transferred to various places, including a clinic, in order to create confusion and avoid rescue efforts.
One person has been arrested. The 24-year-old suspect was in charge of looking after the victims inside the house where they were found, Mexican officials said.
McGee’s mother, Barbara Burgess, says that her daughter traveled from South Carolina to Mexico for a cosmetic medical procedure. On Friday, the day of the appointment, Burgess said McGee called to say she was 15 minutes away from the doctor’s office. Burgess called McGee later that day but never heard back from her.
The shootings illustrate the terror that has prevailed for years in Matamoros, a city dominated by factions of the powerful Gulf drug cartel who often fight among themselves. Amid the violence, thousands of Mexicans have disappeared in Tamaulipas state alone.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said Tuesday that the Justice Department is working with its Mexican counterparts on the situation.
“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 had offered a $50,000 reward for the victims’ return and the arrest of the abductors.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, “We offer our deepest condolences to the friends and families of those who were killed in these attacks.”
“We’re going to work closely with the Mexican government to ensure that justice is done in this case,” he said.