Four South Carolinians in a white minivan pulled out the parking lot of a Motel 6 surrounded by palmettos and onto an expressway in Brownsville, Texas – zooming past strip malls lined with taquerias, auto repair shops and law offices with Spanish names – for the short drive to the Mexican border city of Matamoros.
At one of the busiest border crossings in the country, the American citizens that Friday morning joined other motorists and pedestrians on trips for work or to see family, cheaper medical procedures and medications, or margarita lunches at brightly painted restaurants where menu prices are listed in pesos and dollars.
About 9:20 a.m., LaTavia Washington McGee, a 33-year-old mother of six, and her three friends from South Carolina crossed the Brownsville and Matamoros Express International Bridge. They were already running late for Washington McGee’s appointment for a medical procedure.
Around that time, the minivan moves along a rundown section of Matamoros, according to a livestream video taken by one of the minivan’s occupants that was obtained and analyzed by CNN.
“Y’all ain’t never been to Mexico,” said one of the men inside the van. “Y’all don’t know what it’s like in Mexi.”
Moments later, the man said, “Hola,” and there was laughter during a road trip that would soon take a deadly turn in the lawless border town.
In broad daylight, at 11:45 a.m., the van was intercepted and fired upon. All occupants were shot except for Washington McGee. A Mexican woman was killed by a stray bullet about a block and a half away.
Video showed the attackers, armed with rifles and wearing protective vests, tossing Washington McGee – “like trash” in the words of her mother, Barbara McLeod Burgess – onto the bed of a pickup.
The gunmen, believed to be connected to the Gulf drug cartel, dragged the other victims onto the truck. Two appeared limp, leaving a trail of blood on the ground of the busy intersection. The abductors then drove away.
Within days Mexican security forces found two of the Americans – Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown – dead in a small wooden shack on a desolate road leading to Playa Bagdad, near the spot where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico. Another man, Eric Williams, was wounded. And Washington McGee was found alive following a violent kidnapping that has become a flash point between neighboring countries and brought international attention to a Mexican border city where little-noticed killings and disappearances are part of everyday life.
“If they were Mexicans this would not have happened with such speed,” Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on smuggling who is a professor at George Mason University and has lived and worked in near Brownsville border, said of the rescue. “It would not have happened at all. It doesn’t happen with Mexicans, particularly in that state.”
By Friday, a week after the kidnappings, Mexican authorities announced that five people had been arrested for the attack. A day earlier, the Gulf cartel purportedly issued a letter of apology and handed over five members to local authorities, according to online images and a version of the letter obtained by CNN from an official familiar with the ongoing investigation. A sixth man, who authorities said had been guarding the hostages, was arrested when the Americans were found on Tuesday.
‘She’s not going to travel to danger’
The four Americans that Friday morning drove into a country where authorities have struggled for small victories in a long and deadly battle against drug cartels. The conflict has claimed the lives of thousands of Mexicans, from innocent bystanders to journalists to government officials and political candidates.
It’s unclear how much the friends in the rented minivan knew about the crime-ridden border city, where factions of the powerful Gulf cartel have been warring for turf, along with control of human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion rackets. Matamoros is in the northeast state of Tamaulipas, where an explosion of homicides, kidnappings and disappearances rarely make international news.
“I know her,” said Washington McGee’s best friend, Cheryl Orange, who traveled with the group from South Carolina to Texas on March 2 but stayed behind because she did not have proper identification to cross the border. “She’s not going to travel to danger.”
The trip was Washington McGee’s second to Mexico for a medical procedure, according to her mother. She had surgery across the border two or three years ago, Barbara Burgess said.
Matamoros, with a population of more than 500,000 people, sits just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville. The US State Department in October issued a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” advisory for US citizens visiting Tamaulipas, citing gun battles, kidnapping and forced disappearances.
On the day of the kidnappings, Tamaulipas authorities issued a warning to parents to keep their children home from school in Matamoros because of shootings. The US embassy and consulates in Mexico warned staff to avoid downtown Matamoros.
The Americans are believed to have been targeted by mistake and were not the intended victims, according to a US official with knowledge of the investigation. Authorities believe cartel members likely mistook them for Haitian smugglers, the official said. US authorities have not identified any concerning criminal history on the part of the Americans.
On Friday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador alluded to the purported “criminal background in the United States” of the Americans but did not elaborate on how that related to the deadly kidnapping. López Obrador’s “hugs not bullets” anti-crime policy – focusing on social programs rather than confrontation with criminal gangs – has come under fire at home and abroad.
CNN is looking into López Obrador’s claims about the criminal history of the US citizens.
US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar on Friday declined comment on the motivation behind the kidnappings.
Asked what she wanted people to know about her friends, Orange said: “I want the world to leave us alone and stop being mean. I want them to have a heart because everyone has a past.”
A road trip and an early birthday celebration
The disappearance of the four Americans has become an international incident.
The FBI launched an investigation and announced a $50,000 reward for their return and the arrest of those involved. The White House and State Department condemned the abduction and killings. Some Republicans in Congress called for a US military invasion of Mexico to combat the cartels. Others called for the US to designate the cartels as “terrorist organizations.”
Orange said she and the other four Americans embarked on their journey from South Carolina on Thursday.
“It was a road trip,” she said. They tagged along with Washington McGee, who was scheduled to have a medical procedure across the border, Orange told Brownsville police when she reported her friends missing a day after the kidnapping.
Mexico is the second most popular destination for medical tourism globally, with an estimated 1.4 million to 3 million patients traveling into the country for inexpensive treatment in 2020, according to Patients Beyond Borders, an international healthcare consulting company.
Woodard, who was killed in the kidnapping, would have celebrated his 34th birthday on Thursday, according to his father, James Woodard.
Washington McGee and Shaeed Woodard were cousins – “like two peas in a pod” – and she invited him on the trip to Mexico for an early birthday celebration, James Woodard said.
“They loved each other,” he said of the cousins.
Orange said the men were expected to drop off Washington McGee at the doctor’s officer in Matamoros and return to the hotel about 15 minutes later. She fell asleep after taking a shower at the Motel 6. “I was exhausted, you know, from the long hours, from the long ride,” she said.
She woke up about 5 p.m. and they hadn’t returned. Orange told police she tried calling her friends but couldn’t get through.
‘She watched them die’
The four friends never arrived at the doctor’s office for Washington McGee’s 7:30 a.m. appointment. One of them called the office that Friday morning to say they were running late.
At some point after 11 a.m. a gray Volkswagen Jetta is seen following their minivan, according to surveillance video obtained by Mexican prosecutors.
About 40 minutes later several vehicles appear to be trailing the minivan and, at 11:45 a.m., the Americans were intercepted by gunmen.
Burgess said her daughter later told her by phone that the minivan was struck by another vehicle before the shooting started.
In video that circulated online after the kidnapping, McGee Washington is seen sitting on the ground next to the white minivan. A bullet appeared to pierce the middle of driver’s side window. Three other people can be seen on the road as cars on the busy intersection start steering away from the danger.
McGee Washington is shoved onto the back of a pickup before her three friends were lifted and tossed beside her.
“She said the others tried to run and they got shot at the same time,” Burgess said her daughter told her after the Americans were found on Tuesday.
“She watched them die,” Burgess said of Woodard and Zindell Brown.
Burgess watched the video, she said, and “I thought she was done,” referring to her daughter.
In the wee hours after reporting her friends missing, Orange watched the widely circulated video of the abduction.
“My body clenched up. I dropped the phone. My stomach was in knots and I just began praying for the return of them,” she said.
James Woodard was also pained by the video he saw on television.
“That was so hard for me to see,” he said. “He was a baby and for him to be taken from me like that was very hurtful.”
They were moved ‘from place to place’
In the days after the kidnapping, Mexican authorities combed through surveillance video from the downtown intersection. They contacted US authorities after discovering documents in the rented minivan with North Carolina plates, which were traced by officials across the border. Mexican investigators also managed to identify the truck used by the gunmen.
Investigators processed vehicles, and obtained ballistics and fingerprint data. They also collected biological samples for genetic profiles, Mexican officials said.
After identifying the truck used by the gunmen, several unsuccessful searches were conducted by heavily armed Mexican security forces from various agencies.
The Americans had been moved to several places “to create confusion and avoid rescue efforts,” Tamaulipas Gov. Américo Villarreal said.
Burgess said her daughter told her the abductors moved the four Americans “from place to place” and finally hid them in “a little place and it stank.”
“All of them were hustled in and were staying together,” she said.
At 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the Americans were found in a small red wooden shack in a field outside the city. Mexican authorities arrested a man who they said was guarding the house. Images from the scene showed McGee barefoot and covered in dirt, with streaks of blood on her left leg.
Mexico dispatched hundreds of security forces to Matamoros in what the defense ministry said was a move to safeguard “the well-being of citizens.”
The swift response by authorities to the Americans’ kidnapping raised eyebrows in a country where desperate relatives of people who have gone missing over the years have banded together to conduct their own investigations. More than 100,000 Mexicans and migrants have disappeared in the country over the years, with no explanation of their fate.
After the frantic rescue, Orange said hearing Washington MaGee’s voice on the phone was “music to my ears.”
“This lady was facing death damn near and she said, ‘I was worried about you,’” Orange recalled.
The bodies of Woodard and Brown were turned over to US authorities on Thursday.
Washington McGee told CNN Saturday she is grateful to be back home with her family in South Carolina.
This story was reported by Josh Campbell, Elizabeth Wolfe, Rosa Flores, Andy Rose, Paul P. Murphy, Caroll Alvarado, Carlos Suarez, Jade Gordon, Sharif Paget, David Shortell, Paradise Afshar, Amanda Jackson, AnneClaire Stapleton, Mitchell McCluskey, Sahar Akbarzai, Karol Suarez, Fidel Gutierrez, Tara John, Dianne Gallagher, Alexa Miranda and Ray Sanchez. It was written by Sanchez in New York.