Two of the four U.S. citizens whose Friday kidnapping at a Mexican border town by a local drug cartel was captured on a gripping video have been found dead, while the other two have been found alive, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador confirmed Tuesday.
One of the two survivors was being treated for an injury, according to Tamaulipas Gov. Americo Villarreal, adding that emergency medical services are responding at the scene.
The incident has raised fresh questions about the state of security along the Mexican border and left President Biden open to fresh attacks from Republicans in Washington that he was not doing enough to address the crisis. Mr. Lopez Obrador, a leftist who has had an often prickly relationship with the U.S., condemned the killing but also criticized the heavy media attention the kidnapping had generated north of the border.
The four Americans had entered Mexico Friday so one of the group could have a cosmetic surgery procedure, but their white minivan was caught in crossfire from an apparent gunbattle between rival gangs on the streets of Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. A 33-year-old Mexican woman was also killed in the clash, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said in a statement Monday.
The four Americans were identified as Zindell Brown, Eric James Williams and cousins Latavia “Tay” McGee and Shaeed Woodard. Mr. Williams had survived and was receiving medical care Tuesday, a relative said, and the fate of the other three victims was still unclear.
Gov. Villarreal told reporters Tuesday the four were found in a wooden shack in a rural area near Meixco’s Gulf coast, where they were being guarded by a man who was arrested. Mr. Villarreal said the captive Americans had been moved around by their captors, and at one point were taken to a medical clinic “to create confusion and avoid efforts to rescue them.”
At the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre offered condolences Tuesday to the family and friends of victims, but declined to say more, citing privacy concerns. She noted that the State Department has issued a “Level Four” travel warning — the highest in the system — for Americans about the region where the victims were kidnapped.
“I would make sure that if Americans are thinking about traveling to Mexico, that they certainly heed the call from the State Department,” she said. “This particular area, as I just mentioned, is a Level Four and so folks need to be really careful.”
But National Security Council spokesman John Kirby cautioned that it was “just too soon” to discuss “any policy changes or vectors as a result of this attack. We are still learning more from the Mexican officials right now.”
The two surviving Americans were back in the United States after being sped to the border near Brownsville, in a convoy escorted by Mexican military vehicles and National Guard trucks, the Associated Press reported. A State Department spokesman said the Biden administration was working to repatriate the bodies of the two dead Americans.
Mr. Villarreal did not share any additional details about the original incident, but U.S. officials quickly zeroed in on the violence and carnage created by Mexico‘s powerful criminal organizations.
“The cartels are responsible for the deaths of Americans,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “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.”
The White House remarks came after a number of Republicans on Capitol Hill said Mr. Biden shared responsibility for the incident, saying the lack of security along America’s southern border has emboldened the already powerful drug cartels.
“Another tragic reminder that Biden has given operational control of our border to Mexican crime cartels. When will enough be enough?” wrote Rep. Bob Goode, Virginia Republican, in a tweet after the deaths were announced.
Kidnapping as a business
In 2021, 75 Americans were murdered in Mexico, according to the most recent data from the State Department. While that remains a small percentage of the 28.8 million who traveled to the country that year, more Americans died by homicide in Mexico than in every other country combined.
The risk consulting firm Global Guardian estimated in a recent webinar that that it estimates between 250 and 400 U.S. nationals are kidnapped in Mexico every year, many of the victims being either business executives or dual U.S.-Mexican citizens who face a greater risk as the once-dominant cartels have fractured in recent years into smaller, more violent factions. Many of the abductions go unreported because employers shun the publicity if they agree to pay a ransom.
“At the end of the day… this is a business,” Global Guardian CEO Dale Buckner said. “[The cartels] don’t want to kill your employee, they don’t want to hold your employee. They want to leverage them and they want to get paid, in most cases.”
Even as he expressed regret over the killings and vowed that those responsible would be found and punished, Mr. Lopez Obrador on
Tuesday also accused U.S. media of sensationalizing such incidents and of having a double-standard regarding cross-border violence.
“It’s not like that when they kill Mexicans in the United States. [Then] they go quiet like mummies,” he said, before adding, “It’s very unfortunate, [the U.S. government] has the right to protest like they have. We really regret that this happens in our country.”
The Mexican president also was the target of criticism Tuesday from Hill Republicans, some of whom say he has failed to rein in the cartels or curb rising violence in states across the country.
“2 of the 4 Americans kidnapped by the cartels in Mexico were murdered and we still haven’t declared the cartels a military target. It’s time we authorized military force against them,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, said on Twitter. “Are you listening [Mr. Obrador?] We would love for you to be a partner. Help us help you.”
Focus on cartel
The Mexican newspaper Milenio reported Tuesday that authorities in Mexico City are focusing their investigation on the notoriously violent Gulf Cartel, also known as Cyclone 19, in the attack. Mexican police had previously offered a reward of over $135,000 for the capture of cartel leader Alberto Garcia Vilano, who goes by the nom de guerre of “La Kena.”
The Gulf Cartel has deep roots in the Matamoros area, and Mr. Garcia Vilano had reportedly been involved in a violent clash with a rival cell within the cartel in September in Tamaulipas.
The Tamaulipas Prosecutor’s Office told the newspaper that they were reviewing physical evidence from the attack site as well as video surveillance cameras, and that Mexico‘s navy, army, National Guard and National Search Commission are participating in the investigation.
The Gulf Cartel is considered one of the oldest criminal syndicates in Mexico, tracing its roots back to the 1930s. It began as an alcohol-smuggling operation but now is one of the country’s biggest narcotics traffickers. Authorities say it has established links to organized crime networks in Europe, West Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in the United States.
The victims entered Tamaulipas in a white minivan with North Carolina plates, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico said.
“Shortly after crossing into Mexico, unidentified gunmen shot the passengers of the vehicle,” the embassy said. “The gunmen herded the four U.S. citizens into another vehicle and fled the scene with them.”
The FBI is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible.
Some of the victims’ family members have spoken to the press.
“This is like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from,” Zalandria Brown, the sister of Zindell Brown, told The Associated Press before the deaths were announced.
“To see a member of your family thrown into the back of a truck and dragged is just unbelievable,” she said, commenting on a video showing armed men wearing protective vests forcing a woman into the back of the truck and pushing three others to the truck.
Barbara Burgess, the mother of Latavia McGee, told ABC News that her daughter was the one who sought the medical procedure. She said she has not spoken to her daughter since Friday, when Ms. McGee called her to say she was 15 minutes away from the doctor’s office.
Ms. Jean-Pierre pushed back on GOP criticism that Mr. Biden hasn’t done enough to secure the U.S southern border. She said that Mr. Biden has added 23,000 border officials and stepped up coordination with the Mexican government to vet those crossing the border.
“The president takes this very seriously,” she said, but declined to say if he would use the U.S. military to disrupt cartel operations.
On Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, scheduled a press conference to unveil a bill to officially designate the Mexican cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations,” and authorize the use of force against them.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.