2 Americans are dead and 2 are back in the U.S. after a violent kidnapping in Mexico, officials say

Chantal Da Silva, Gabe Gutierrez and Marlene Lenthang
A member of the Mexican security forces stands next to a white minivan with North Carolina plates and several bullet holes, at the crime scene where gunmen kidnapped four U.S. citizens who crossed into Mexico from Texas, Friday, March 3, 2023. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the four Americans were going to buy medicine and were caught in the crossfire between two armed groups after they had entered Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, on Friday. 

Two of the four Americans who were shot at by gunmen and kidnapped shortly after crossing the border into northern Mexico for a medical procedure last week are dead, and the two survivors are back on American soil, Mexican and U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Tamaulipas state Gov. Américo Villarreal said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon a woman and a man had survived the kidnapping. The woman, identified by the governor only as LaTavia, was unharmed. The man, whose first name is Eric, had a gunshot wound to the leg, Villarreal said.

Both were taken to a clinic for medical treatment and returned to the U.S. by an international bridge between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, before noon Tuesday, he said.

A 24-year-old man from Tamaulipas, identified only as Jose N, "was found guarding the victims" and arrested, according to Villarreal. The charges against the man were unclear.

The governor announced the casualties by phone at a presidential news conference Tuesday morning.

At a State Department briefing Tuesday, spokesperson Ned Price confirmed the survivors had returned to the U.S., adding "we are in the process of working to repatriate the remains of the two Americans who were killed in this incident." He said the U.S. is providing assistance to the victims and their families. 

What we know about the discovery of the victims

The Americans were found Tuesday morning in a wooden house close to an area called La Lagunona in Matamoros, Villarreal said Tuesday.  

Attorney General Irving Barrios Mojica tweeted that the Americans were found by "joint search actions."

Villarreal said the Americans had been transported to various places, including a clinic "to create confusion and to interrupt the rescue work."

An investigation continues to catch other suspects involved in the case, he said.  

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Earlier Tuesday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered his sympathies to the victims.

"We are very sorry that this happened in our country, and we send our condolences to the families of the victims, friends, and the United States government, and we will continue doing our work to guarantee peace and tranquility," he said.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is "working closely" with the State Department and offered his condolences. 

A trip for medical care gone wrong

The FBI had been offering a $50,000 reward for the safe return of the U.S. citizens.

The group was kidnapped Friday after driving into Matamoros, Tamaulipas, just south of Brownsville, Texas.

Dramatic video showing a gunman dragging people into a white pickup captured the kidnapping as it unfolded, a law enforcement source with knowledge of the matter confirmed.

One of the victims was identified as LaTavia Washington McGee by her cousin, Aliyah McCleod, who is acting as a family spokesperson.

On Tuesday, LaTavia's mother, Barbara Burgess, confirmed her daughter is alive and said she's spoken with her. 

McCleod also identified another member of the group as Shaeed Woodard.

Mexican Natioanla Guard prepare a search mission for four U.S. citizens kidnapped by gunmen at Matamoros, Mexico, Monday, March 6, 2023. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the four Americans were going to buy medicine and were caught in the crossfire between two armed groups after they had entered Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, on Friday. 

Eric Williams' wife said he had been kidnapped and was shot in the leg before he returned to the U.S. Tuesday.

McCleod said the group is from South Carolina and had been traveling in a rental vehicle with North Carolina license plates when they entered Matamoros. The FBI confirmed that the group was traveling in a white minivan with North Carolina plates.

McCleod said the group had traveled to Mexico for a "medical procedure."

A law enforcement official with knowledge of the matter said a woman in the group had been seeking a cosmetic medical procedure. The official said cartel gunmen had targeted the group in a case of mistaken identity.

Zalandria Brown of Florence, South Carolina, told The Associated Press that her younger brother, Zindell, was among the four victims. She said she had been in contact with the FBI and local officials after learning her sibling had been kidnapped.

"This is like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from," she told the news agency. "To see a member of your family thrown in the back of a truck and dragged, it is just unbelievable."

Brown said her brother, who lives in Myrtle Beach, had been on the trip to accompany a friend who was traveling to Mexico for a procedure.

She also said that her brother had some reservations about them making the trip because of the potential dangers in Mexico.

"Zindell kept saying, 'We shouldn't go down,'" Brown told the AP.

At a news briefing in Washington on Monday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration was "closely following the assault and kidnapping of four U.S. citizens."

"These sorts of attacks are unacceptable," she said.

"We will continue to coordinate with Mexico and push them to bring those responsible to justice," Jean-Pierre said.

Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said in a statement Monday that an "innocent Mexican citizen was tragically killed" during the kidnapping.

President López Obrador said at a news conference that the Americans were in Mexico to buy medicine, a common practice for people seeking cheaper medications across the southern border.

The State Department has a "Do Not Travel" warning in place for Tamaulipas state due to "crime and kidnapping." It said organized crime activity, including gun battles, armed robberies and kidnappings, are common along the border and in Ciudad Victoria.

"Criminal groups target public and private passenger buses, as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers and demanding ransom payments," the warning says.

Matteo Moschella and Rima Abdelkader contributed.