Kidnapped Americans found in Mexico; 2 dead, 1 injured

(NewsNation) — The Americans kidnapped in Matamoros, Mexico, have been found, and two are reported dead.

Tamaulipas Gov. Américo Villarreal confirmed the Americans were found, with two dead and one injured. The two surviving citizens have been turned over to U.S. authorities, and the bodies of the two deceased will be turned over to U.S. authorities after forensic evidence is collected at the Matamoros morgue. Villareal said the wounded American, Eric Williams, had been shot in the left leg, and the wound was not considered life-hreatening.

The U.S. citizens were found in a rural area east of Matamoros called Ejido Longoreño on the way to the Gulf Coast known as “Bagdad Beach,” according to a Mexican state law enforcement official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the case. Word of their location came to authorities before dawn Tuesday.

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 FBI had reported Sunday that it was searching with Mexican authorities for the missing Americans, who had been kidnapped Friday. A relative of one of them said Monday they had traveled together from South Carolina so one of them could get a tummy tuck from a Matamoros doctor.

The wife of injured victim Eric Williams told NewsNation affiliate WBTW she did not know her husband had plans to travel to Mexico ahead of the incident.

“I didn’t know that he was traveling to Mexico. I just knew he was going somewhere to help two friends,” Michelle Williams told WBTW, later adding, “I highly doubt they thought this could have happened to them.”

Williams said the situation was surreal and that she feels a “sense of relief” that her husband is in the U.S.

“I’m happy and thankful that he’s home, but I’m also heartbroken that the other two families can’t say the same,” Williams told WBTW.

The FBI said they are trying to help the two surviving victims of the kidnapping as they heal from the event, and they are working on the return of the deceased victims to the U.S.

“This is still an ongoing criminal investigation and the FBI will continue to work with DoS, HSI, DEA, and other federal and international partners to determine the facts of what happened and to hold those responsible for this horrific and violent attack accountable for their crimes,” the bureau said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.

Nayyera Haq, former State Department adviser, said it’s likely the group didn’t realize they were traveling to a dangerous area under the control of cartels.

“The majority of Mexico is actually in the control of cartels. The government does not control all the territory there. In fact, the government of Mexico for decades has been complicit in ceding control,” she told NewsNation.

Shortly after entering Mexico on Friday, the Americans were caught in the crossfire of rival cartel groups. A video showed them being loaded into the back of a pickup truck by gunmen.

Mexican officials said a Mexican woman also died in the crossfire.

The four Americans from Lake County, South Carolina, were traveling in a car with North Carolina plates, entering Mexico from Texas. The State Department warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Tamaulipas. However, U.S. citizens who live in Brownsville or elsewhere in Texas frequently cross to visit family, attend medical appointments or shop. It’s also a crossing point for people traveling deeper into Mexico.

“The death of a U.S. citizen at the hands of a cartel is an enormous deal. … The phones are ringing off the hook at this point,” Haq said.

Both Mexico and the U.S. have an interest in maintaining diplomatic relations, Haq said, but there are some lawmakers calling for military action against the cartels.

“There are a lot of other tools that come before that, as they say, lots of tools in the national security toolbox, including sanctions, including extraditions, including targeted operations,” Haq cautioned.

The State Department has travel advisories for 30 of Mexico’s 32 states, with Tamaulipas included on the “do not travel” list due to widespread violent crime, including kidnapping.

Former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes told NewsNation that even if someone is planning to travel to a safe part of Mexico, like a resort, they should check the warnings.

“While you’re on the highway, you’re vulnerable. Now, in this case, it sounds like the cartels had set up a checkpoint, basically like a tollgate, that you had to go through them. And it sounds like the van tried to run past that. And that’s when the cartels opened fire,” he said.

Haq said the most important thing for Americans is to research travel destinations and be aware of risks.

“It is wonderful to travel overseas. It is not the same as traveling in the United States, no matter what the bargain, or what the deal is that you can get. You have to understand what life is like for people in the country,” she said.

The FBI offered a $50,000 reward for their recovery and the arrest of the kidnappers, but Fuentes said it’s unlikely anyone will step forward to testify.

“These cartels are so violent, so vicious, that if somebody dares to cross them, if you have a local citizen that saw this and wants to testify, the members of their family are dismembered,” Fuentes said.

The best way to prevent this kind of violence, he said, would be to take actions to close the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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