CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico — A road trip to Mexico for cosmetic surgery ended with two Americans dead — and two others found alive in a rural area near the Gulf coast — after a violent shootout and abduction that was captured on video, officials said Tuesday.
The surviving Americans were back on U.S. soil after being sped to the border near Brownsville, the southernmost tip of Texas, in a convoy of ambulances and SUVs escorted by Mexican military Humvees and National Guard trucks with mounted machine guns.
A relative of one of the victims said Monday that the four had traveled together from the Carolinas so one of them could get a tummy tuck surgery from a doctor in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, where Friday’s kidnapping took place.
Tamaulipas Gov. Américo Villarreal said the four were found in a wooden shack, where they were being guarded by a man who was arrested. 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.”
The two dead will be turned over to U.S. authorities following forensic work at the Matamoros morgue in the coming hours, the governor said.
Villareal said the wounded American, Eric Williams, had been shot in the left leg and the wound was not life threatening. The survivors were taken to Valley Regional Medical Center with an FBI escort, the Brownsville Herald reported. A spokesperson for the hospital referred all inquiries to the FBI.
The U.S. citizens were found in a rural area east of Matamoros called Ejido Tecolote on the way to the Gulf coast known as “Bagdad Beach,” according to Tamaulipas state chief prosecutor Irving Barrios.
Shortly after entering Mexico Friday, the four were caught amid fighting between rival cartel groups in the city. Barrios said the hypothesis is “that it was confusion, not a direct attack.”
Video and photographs taken during and immediately after the 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 in tactical vests and toting assault rifles arrived in another vehicle to surround the scene.
The gunmen walked one of the Americans into the bed of a white pickup, then dragged and loaded the three others. Terrified civilian motorists sat silently in their cars, hoping not to draw their attention. Two of the victims appeared to be motionless.
Officials said a Mexican woman a block and a half away from the scene also died in Friday’s crossfire.
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.
Robert Williams said in a telephone interview that his brother, 38-year-old Eric Williams, was among the kidnapped Americans. The brothers are from South Carolina but now live in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina, he said.
Williams described his brother as “easygoing” and “fun-spirited.”
He didn’t know his brother was traveling to Mexico until after the abduction hit the news. But from looking at his brother’s Facebook posts, he thinks his brother did not consider the trip dangerous.
“He thought it would be fun,” Williams said. He hadn’t heard anything about his brother’s whereabouts, he said.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the people responsible would be punished. He referenced arrests made in the 2019 killings of nine U.S.-Mexican dual citizens in Sonora near the U.S. border.
He complained about the U.S. media’s coverage of the missing Americans, accusing them of sensationalism. “It’s not like that when they kill Mexicans in the United States, they (the media) go quiet like mummies.”
“It’s very unfortunate, they (the U.S. government) have the right to protest like they have,” López Obrador said. “We really regret that this happens in our country.”
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, said “The cartels are responsible for the deaths of Americans.” “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.”
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. is working with Mexican officials to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the killings.
The FBI had offered a $50,000 reward for the victims’ return and the arrest of the kidnappers.
AP writers Lindsay Whitehurst and Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee in Washington and Travis Loller in Nashville contributed to this report.