By Karol Suarez, David Williams, Jose Lesh, Amanda Jackson and Elizabeth Wolfe | CNN
Two of the four Americans kidnapped by armed gunmen in a Mexico border city on Friday were found dead and two were found alive, Mexican officials said Tuesday.
In a phone call with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that was played at a news conference, Tamaulipas Gov. Américo Villarreal Anaya said “ambulances and security personnel” were now attending to and giving medical support to the survivors.
Tamaulipas Attorney General Irving Barrios also confirmed the four had been found. “Unfortunately, two dead. Investigation and intelligence work continue to capture those responsible,” he said.
The four Americans were located at what appears to be a medical clinic in Matamoros, a US official familiar with the ongoing investigation told CNN. One of the two survivors is severely injured, the official said.
The bodies of the two citizens who were killed will be examined by Mexican authorities prior to being turned over to the US government, the official said. The two surviving Americans are in the care of the FBI and have returned to the US for medical treatment at a Texas hospital, the official added.
RELATED: Mexico danger map: Six states under ‘do not travel’ warning
The news comes days after the group was abducted at gunpoint in Matamoros in what is believed to be a case of mistaken identity.
The four Americans were a tight-knit group of friends traveling from South Carolina to Mexico so one of them — a mother of six — could undergo a medical procedure across the border Friday, two family members told CNN.
Latavia “Tay” Washington McGee, 33, drove to Mexico with Shaeed Woodard, Zindell Brown and their friend Eric Williams for the procedure but never made it to her doctor’s appointment, her mother Barbara Burgess told CNN.
The group got lost while trying to locate the medical clinic, according to Washington McGee’s close friend, who did not want to be identified. They reached out to the doctor’s office for directions on Friday but were struggling to communicate with the office because they had a poor cellphone signal.
After crossing the border, they were fired upon by unidentified gunmen, “placed in a vehicle and taken from the scene by armed men,” according to the FBI.
Investigators believe the Americans were targeted by a Mexican cartel that likely mistook them for Haitian drug smugglers, the US official said. The US citizens have no concerning criminal history that has been identified by investigators, the official said.
An innocent Mexican bystander was also killed in the encounter, US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said.
Their abduction highlights the ongoing violence that has plagued some Mexican cities during the long-running Mexican drug war as well as the growing business of “medical tourism.”
Matamoros, a city in the state of Tamaulipas, has a population of more than 500,000 people and is located just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. The US State Department has issued a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” advisory for US citizens thinking of going to Tamaulipas, citing crime and kidnapping.
Federal and local Mexican authorities were participating in the effort to locate the Americans and had set up a joint task force to communicate with US officials, Barrios Mojica said.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is “working closely” with the US State Department.
“I’ve been briefed by the FBI, which is working with Mexican authorities,” Garland said Tuesday. “And senior department officials are working closely with our counterparts at the State Department.”
Mother was traveling for medical procedure
This trip was the second time Washington McGee, a mother of six children, had gone to Mexico for a medical procedure, her mother said.
She traveled to the country for surgery about two to three years ago, Burgess said. But this time, Burgess was informed by the FBI on Sunday that her daughter had been kidnapped and was in danger.
“They said, if she calls me, to call them,” she said.
Receipts found in the group’s vehicle indicated the Americans were in Mexico for medical procedures, a US official with knowledge of the investigation told CNN.
López Obrador said Monday that the group had crossed the border to “buy medicines”
Washington McGee’s close friend told CNN the trip was for a cosmetic surgery. The group booked a hotel in Brownsville and planned to drive into Matamoros for the surgery, according to the friend.
A day after the kidnapping, the friend became concerned and reached out to the doctor’s office for more information.
“When I reached out to the doctor’s office they told me that Latavia had reached out to them to ask them for directions because she was lost,” the friend said. “They sent me a screenshot of the messages and they said they sent her the address and asked her if she was using a GPS.”
The group of missing Americans grew up together in South Carolina and were bonded “like glue,” Brown’s sister Zalandria Brown told CNN. She added that she and her brother are also close.
“Zindell is like my shadow, he’s like my son, he’s like my hip bone. We’re just tight like that,” she said.
Mexico has become a particularly popular destination for “medical tourism,” attracting travelers who may be seeking cheaper alternatives or medical treatments that are unapproved or unavailable in the US. But the CDC warns the growing trend can carry dangerous risks depending on the destination and facility, including infection and possible post-procedure complications.
Mexico is the second most popular destination for medical tourism globally, with an estimated 1.4 to 3 million patients traveling into the country to take advantage of inexpensive treatment in 2020, according to Patients Beyond Borders, an international healthcare consulting company.
Matamoros, however, is “not considered a primary medical travel destination,” said Josef Woodman, the company’s founder, “largely because there are no internationally accredited medical centers/speciality clinics there, or in the immediate region.”
Mexico City, Cancun, and Tijuana are more frequented and reliable destinations in the country, Woodman said. On average, Americans can save 40% to 60% across the most common major procedures received by medical tourists in Mexico, according to an analysis of 2020 health ministry data conducted by Patients Beyond Borders.
‘We don’t know if she is dead or alive’
Washington McGee’s aunt, Mary McFadden, told CNN that when the family hadn’t heard from the group of friends by Sunday, they began searching online for any news related to their travel destination. Then, the family saw a video McFadden described as showing her niece being kidnapped.
“We recognized her and her blonde hair,” McFadden said. She said she also recognized her niece’s clothing from a live video Washington McGee had posted to Facebook earlier Friday.
“This happened in plain daylight. We don’t know if she is dead or alive. The last picture we saw, she was walking alive,” McFadden said.
“She is a mother and we need her to come back here for her kids,” she said, adding that Washington McGee’s children range in age from 6 to 18 years old.
A video obtained by CNN shows a woman and other unidentified people being roughly loaded into a white pickup truck. CNN has confirmed the video matches the incident but has not independently confirmed it is the four Americans shown in the video.
The video shows the woman being pulled or pushed onto the bed of the truck by two unidentified people as a third visibly armed man watches. The three men then appear to drag at least two limp people onto the truck bed, the video shows.
Additionally, photos obtained by CNN appear to show fragments of the scene where the situation occurred, including the car believed to have been driven by the Americans crashed with another vehicle before they were taken at gunpoint from the scene.
The US citizens were driving a white minivan with North Carolina plates, according to the FBI in San Antonio.
The FBI would not confirm the authenticity of the photos, but CNN has geolocated the images and confirmed their authenticity with a US official with knowledge of the investigation.
The photos also show a woman looking at and then sitting next to three people lying on the ground outside a white minivan. All the doors of the van are open. It is unclear whether the four people in the photos are the US citizens.
The woman then appears to have been loaded onto the bed of a white pickup truck, beside which several people can be seen lying on the street, the photos show.
One photo shows that an ambulance arrived, but it’s unclear if medical attention was being provided.
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