By ALFREDO PEÑA, FABIOLA SÁNCHEZ and TRAVIS LOLLER
CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico (AP) — A road trip to Mexico for cosmetic surgery veered violently off course when four Americans were caught in a drug cartel shootout, leaving two dead and two held captive for days in a remote region of the Gulf coast before they were rescued from a wood shack, officials said Tuesday.
Their minivan crashed and was fired on shortly after they crossed into the border city of Matamoros on Friday as drug cartel factions tore through the streets, the region’s governor said. A stray bullet also killed a Mexican woman about a block and a half away.
The four Americans were hauled off in a pickup truck, and Mexican authorities frantically searched as the cartel moved them around — even taking them to a medical clinic — “to create confusion and avoid efforts to rescue them,” Tamaulipas Gov. Américo Villarreal said.
They were found Tuesday in a wooden shack, guarded by a man who was arrested, in a rural area east of Matamoros called Ejido Tecolote on the way to the Gulf called “Bagdad Beach,” according to the state’s chief prosecutor, Irving Barrios.
The surviving Americans were whisked back to U.S. soil on Tuesday in Brownsville, the southernmost tip of Texas and just across the border from Matamoros. The convoy of ambulances and SUVs was 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 Matamoros.
The governor said the wounded American, Eric Williams, had been shot in the left leg and the injury was not life threatening.
“It’s quite a relief,” said Robert Williams, 38-year-old Eric’s brother, reached by phone Tuesday in North Carolina. “I look forward to seeing him again and actually being able to talk to him.”
Robert Williams was not sure if the other survivor, Latavia Burgess, was the one seeking the surgery.
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 two dead — Shaeed Woodard, age 33, and Zindell Brown, in his mid-20s — will be turned over to U.S. authorities following forensic work at the Matamoros morgue, the governor said.
Video and photographs taken during and immediately after Friday’s 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 with tactical vests and assault rifles arrived in another vehicle to surround the scene.
The Mexican authorities’ hypothesis is “that it was confusion, not a direct attack,” the state prosecutor said.
The gunmen walked one of the Americans into the bed of a white pickup, then dragged and loaded up the three others. Terrified civilian motorists sat silently in their cars, hoping not to draw attention. Two of the victims appeared to be motionless.
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.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the people responsible would be punished. He referenced arrests in the 2019 killings of nine U.S.-Mexican dual citizens in Sonora near the U.S. border.
López Obrador complained about the U.S. media’s coverage of the missing Americans, accusing them of sensationalism. He said that when Mexicans are killed, the media “go quiet like mummies.”
“We really regret that this happens in our country,” he said, adding that the U.S. government has every right to be upset by the violence.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland put blame for the deaths squarely on the drug cartels
“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” Garland said.
The FBI had offered a $50,000 reward for the victims’ return and the arrest of the abductors.
Robert Williams said in a telephone interview that he and his brother Eric are from South Carolina but now live in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina.
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.
When told that his brother was among the survivors Tuesday, Williams said that when they meet, “I’ll just tell him how happy I am to see him, and how glad I am that he made it through, and that I love him.”
Loller reported from Nashville. AP writers Lindsay Whitehurst, Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.