Details behind the bizarre kidnapping and killing of Americans by one of Mexico’s oldest drug cartels continue to unravel as the organization behind the crime issues a formal apology and turns in its rouge members.
A local leader of the Gulf cartel, the drug gang behind the kidnappings was also arrested by Mexican authorities Thursday in a neighboring city.
Four South Carolinians were reported missing last Friday, March 3 after reportedly crossing the border into Mexico for a medical appointment. Closed-knit friends Zindell Brown, Shaeed Woodard and Eric Williams drove over 30 hours from the Myrtle Beach area to drop off Latavia McGee for cosmetic surgery, according to their families.
A fifth friend took the ride up to Mexico, but she left her documents behind and couldn’t pass the border.
Cheryl Orange, who stayed behind in Brownsville, Texas, told The Associated Press that the men were supposed to return within 15 minutes after crossing into the city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on Friday. She contacted authorities after she not hearing from them for hours. Two of them never made it back. McGhee and Williams are in a hospital recovering after being rescued by authorities on Tuesday.
Reports show their vehicle crashed and was hit with a hail of bullets after they got lost in the town overrun by the Scorpions faction of the Gulf cartel. Mexican authorities say the drug gang mistook the group for Haitian drug dealers. Reuters reported that Mexican authorities cannot be ruled out that the attack” was not “directly linked to drug trafficking operations” and are reviewing the victims’ criminal records.
Cartel leaders, in a letter made public by The Associated Press on Thursday, said the hit went against the cartel’s rules, which call for “respecting the life and well-being of the innocent.”
The letter was coupled with a photo of five men tied up and face down on the pavement — members that the gang says are responsible for the ambush and kidnapping.
“We have decided to turn over those who were directly involved and responsible in the events, who at all times acted under their own decision-making and lack of discipline,” the letter reads.
Questions still remained about the ordeal after McGhee and Williams were delivered to U.S. authorities on an international bridge on Tuesday. The FBI offered a $50,000 reward for the return of the U.S. citizens hours before they were rescued during a joint effort by the two countries. It is unclear when exactly the FBI official got involved.
Alleged video and photos from the scene show the Americans being forced into a pickup truck. Two of the men who were dragged into the vehicle appeared motionless. Williams sustained bullet wounds to his legs. A Mexican bystander was shot with a stray bullet, according to reports.
Authorities searched jails and medical clinics before they tracked down the victims in a small, wooden shack, where they were being guarded by a man who is now in custody.
Woodard and Brown’s remains will be turned over to U.S. authorities following forensic work at the Matamoros morgue, Tamaulipas Gov. Américo Villarreal said.
It is not uncommon for drug cartels to put out statements, according to The Associated Press, but the tactic is most often used to taunt rivals and authorities. However, in some instances like these, the cartel is considering its bottom line.
A security official also told The Associated Press that five men were found with the letter in a vehicle authorities were looking for Thursday.
As the FBI and Mexican authorities continue to investigate the ordeal, they’ve vowed to dismantle the criminal organizations that run rampant in parts of Mexico.
About 300 hundred soldiers were deployed to Matamoros to “strengthen security in the border strip of the state of Tamaulipas, with the objective of ensuring and safeguarding the well-being of citizens,” the Mexican defense ministry said.
The Gulf cartel has controlled the Matamoros area since the 1930s, according to the New York Post. The gang learned its violent techniques from ex-members of the Mexican military.
“They live off of extortion, kidnapping and protection money,” Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, author of “Los Zetas Inc: Criminal Corporations, Energy and Civil War in Mexico,” told The Post of the group. “They used to be primarily a drug organization. Now they control a number of other activities.”
Suspicions have been raised about the Americans’ reason for the trip, even though Mexican authorities have said they found receipts in the group’s rented caravan that showed they traveled for a medical procedure.
McGee’s close friend told CNN the trip was for cosmetic surgery. McGee make multiple posts late last year about her desire to undergo tummy tuck surgery. Her mother, Barbara Burgess, also told the news outlet that her daughter had traveled to Mexico once before for surgery.
Although Mexico is a hot spot for medical tourism, reports show the area did not have any “internationally accredited medical centers/specialty clinics. The U.S. International Trade Commission reports that about 1 million Californians travel to Mexico every year to buy cheaper medicine.
Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, a medical tourism group, said an attack “almost never happens to a medical traveler.”
“People who travel to get medical care usually get picked up at the airport by the better clinics and hospitals and they are shuttled to their hotels,” he told CBS News.
Many on social media are also skeptical of the cartel’s decision to turn over their members and question the authenticity of the letter and photos.
“After a fake trial in Mexico they’ll be back to their jobs,” wrote Elise Ryan. “Cartels kill thousands of innocent Mexicans every year.”
“Where’s the heavy-set guy who was dragging the bodies,” another user wrote, referencing an unverified video of the abduction circling the internet. “This is a bunch of crap.”