The startling move by a Mexican drug cartel to publicly apologize after four U.S. citizens were abducted in broad daylight last week, leaving two dead, and say it turned over the purported kidnappers is most likely an attempt to "turn down the heat," experts told NBC News on Friday.
While the Gulf cartel doesn't run the Mexican city of Matamoros, the city just south of Brownsville, Texas, where the four Americans were taken last week, they rule the streets, the experts said.
"I wouldn’t go as far as to say the Gulf cartel is the de facto government in this part of Mexico, but they certainly act with impunity, and most of the time what they do doesn’t attract much international attention," said Andrew Rudman, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
The cartel condemned the violence in a letter obtained by The Associated Press and said they had turned over members who were involved. A senior law enforcement official told NBC News that U.S. authorities believe the letter is legitimate.
“The Gulf Cartel Grupo Escorpiones strongly condemns the events of Friday, March 3 in which unfortunately an innocent working mother died and four American citizens were kidnapped, of which two died,” a translation of the letter says. “For this reason, we have decided to hand over those involved and directly responsible for the events who at all times acted under their own determination and indiscipline and against the rules in which the CDG has always operated.”
A law enforcement official with knowledge of the matter said a woman in the group had been seeking a cosmetic medical procedure and that cartel gunmen targeted the group in a case of mistaken identity.
Rudman said the Gulf cartel crossed a line with the deadly abduction and stoked the wrath of the U.S. government and created an international incident.
"My guess is that by issuing the apology and turning over some people they’re trying to turn the heat down," Rudman said. "Whether these are the actual suspects or some fall guys remains to be seen."
Ricardo Ainslie, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who made the 2007 documentary film “Ya Basta!: Kidnapped in Mexico,” agreed.
"I have never heard of a cartel offering up an apology or turning over suspects," Ainslie said. "That's just not their M.O. I suspect that because of the kidnappings, they're under extreme pressure, and not just from (Mexican) federal and state authorities."
Cartels like the Gulf cartel have been involved in "hundreds and hundreds of assassinations" that rarely draw notice outside of Mexico, Ainslie said.
"The last thing they want is a lot of this kind of attention," he said.
Vanda Felbab-Brown of The Brookings Institution, an expert on Mexican cartels and author of “Narco Noir: Mexico’s Cartels, Cops, and Corruption,” said the Gulf cartel is especially wary of a direct confrontation with U.S. authorities.
The abduction of the four Americans drew a lightning-quick response from U.S. and Mexican authorities who located the two victims and two survivors Tuesday — the kind of swift action that relatives of Mexicans abducted by the cartels say rarely happens when their loved ones go missing.
"This would not have happened if the kidnapping and killings didn’t involve Americans," Felbab-Brown said. "If the victims were Mexican, their bodies would be buried and the survivors would never be seen again. But this gang knows the United States has tremendous deterrence skills, has tremendous investigative abilities, and the will to hunt people down."
Back in 2010, when Mexican cartel allies killed U.S. consular workers in Ciudad Juarez, then-President Barack Obama dispatched hundreds of investigators, and, with the aid of Mexican authorities, they were able to track down the culprits.
"The Mexican government doesn’t have that kind of resources and the cartels know it," Felbab-Brown said. "So when the Gulf cartel realized their men mistakenly went after Americans, they decided it would be wiser to give them up and apologize."
There were already signs the apology was falling flat in Washington.
“These criminal organizations can say whatever they want,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said Friday. “The protection of American citizens is the president’s first priority. Anyone who is responsible for killing or harming American citizens will face the full weight of the U.S. government, and that includes a cartel and its members.”
Even before the incident, the Gulf cartel, which is based in northeastern Mexico in the states of Tamaulipas and Zacatecas, was struggling to keep from splintering apart and facing competition from rival cartels, according to a report last year compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The experts weighed in on the same day that Irving Barrios Mojica, the attorney general of the Tamaulipas state, where Matamoros is, announced that five people linked to the deadly kidnappings were arrested on charges of aggravated kidnapping and intentional simple homicide.
It was not clear if these were the same people whom the Gulf cartel said it turned over to the local authorities.
"They could very well be men who were coerced into admitting involvement in this by the Gulf cartel," Ainslie said.
Or they could be five men with no ties at all to this cartel, said Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, an expert on organized crime and U.S.-Mexico security cooperation at the University of California, San Diego. She urged caution at believing the apology's authenticity and taking it at face value.
"Even if we assume it was a criminal group that wrote the message, the action is not necessarily about saving face and it may not even be the criminal group that perpetrated the violence," Farfán-Méndez said in an email to NBC News.
"To be sure the kidnapping of four US citizens and the murder of two will create a lot of pressure on Mexican authorities to provide answers. And as tempting as it may be to tell this story as a criminal group that made a mistake, I would caution against such simplistic narratives."