CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico (AP) — Four Americans traveling to Mexico last week for medical care were caught in a deadly shootout and kidnapped by armed men who threw them into the back of a pickup truck, officials from both countries said Monday.
The four were traveling Friday in a white minivan with North Carolina plates. They came under fire shortly after entering the city of Matamoras from Brownsville, on the southernmost tip of Texas near the Gulf Coast, the FBI said in a statement Sunday.
“All four Americans were placed in a vehicle and taken from the scene by armed men,” the FBI said. The bureau is offering a $50,000 reward for the return of the victims and the arrest of the kidnappers.
Zalandria Brown of Florence, South Carolina, said she contacted the FBI and local officials after learning her younger brother, Zindell Brown, was one of the four victims.
“It’s like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from,” she said in a phone interview. “To see a member of your family thrown into the back of a truck and dragged away is just unbelievable.”
Zalandria Brown said her brother, who lives in Myrtle Beach, and two friends were accompanying a third friend who was traveling to Mexico for tummy tuck surgery. A doctor who advertises such surgeries in Matamoras did not return calls seeking comment.
Brown said the group was very close, and they all made the trip in part to help share the driving duties. She added that they are aware of the dangers in Mexico and her brother has expressed some concerns.
“Zindel kept saying, ‘We must not fall,'” Brown said.
A video posted on social media on Friday showed men with assault rifles and brown body armor loading four people into the bed of a white pickup truck in broad daylight. One was alive and sitting up, while the others appeared to be either dead or wounded. At least one man raised his head from the pavement before being dragged to the truck.
The scene illustrates the terror that has reigned for years in Matamoras, a city dominated by gangs of the powerful Gulf drug cartel, which often fight among themselves. Amid the violence, thousands of Mexicans have disappeared in the state of Tamaulipas alone.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Abrador said Monday that “there was a confrontation between the groups and they were detained,” without giving details. He initially said the four Americans came to Mexico to buy the drugs.
Tamaulipas Chief Prosecutor Irving Barrios told reporters that a Mexican woman was killed in Friday’s shooting. He did not specify whether she was killed in the same shootout where the kidnapping took place.
A woman driving in Matamoras, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, said she witnessed what appeared to be a shooting and a kidnapping.
A white minivan was struck by another vehicle near the intersection, prompting gunfire, the woman said. Another SUV drove up, from which several armed men jumped out.
“Suddenly they (armed men) were in front of us,” she said. “I was in a state of shock, no one was honking, no one was moving. Everyone must have been thinking the same thing: “If we move, they’ll see us or we might get shot.”
She said the gunmen forced the woman, who could walk, into the back of a pickup truck. Another man was carried to the truck, but he could still move his head.
“They were dragging the other two along the sidewalk, we don’t know if they’re alive or dead,” she said.
Mexican authorities arrived minutes later.
Zindel Brown’s family asked people to share any relevant information with local authorities. O’Dell William Brown, his father, said the family is still searching for answers.
“I don’t know which way to go now,” he said. “We don’t know what’s to what.”
On Friday, gunfire in Matamoras was so intense that the US consulate issued a high-risk alert and local authorities warned people to shelter in place. It is not yet clear how the abductions could be connected to this violence.
The US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, said in a statement on Monday that the Americans had been kidnapped at gunpoint and that an “innocent” Mexican citizen had died in the attack. He said various US justice agencies are working with their Mexican counterparts to locate the missing.
Authorities have not released other details about the victims.
President Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation, White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said Monday. She declined to answer other questions, citing privacy concerns.
Victims of the violence in Matamoras and other large border towns in Tamaulipas are often unaccounted for because the cartels have long taken the bodies with them. Local media often shy away from reporting such episodes for security reasons, creating an information vacuum.
The State Department is warning US citizens not to travel to Tamaulipas. However, US citizens who live in Brownsville or elsewhere in Texas often move to visit family, see a doctor, or shop. It is also a crossing point for people traveling into the interior of Mexico.
As the headquarters of the Gulf Cartel, Matamoros was once relatively peaceful. For many years, a night on the town was part of the “Two Nation Vacation” for spring break gatherings on South Padre Island, Texas.
But over the past 10-15 years, cartel violence has increased scared off much of that business. Sometimes US citizens get caught up in the fighting.
Three American siblings disappeared near Matamaros in October 2014 while visiting their father and were later found shot and burned. Their parents said they were abducted by men dressed in police uniforms who called themselves “Hercules,” a tactical unit of the city’s security forces.
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