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Woman in group of kidnapped U.S. citizens was in Mexico for cosmetic procedure, official says

Cartel gunmen targeted the group in a case of mistaken identity, a U.S. official said.
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The FBI is offering a $50,000 reward for the return of four Americans thought to have been kidnapped at gunpoint in an attack in Mexico on Friday that also led to the death of a Mexican citizen, authorities said.

A law enforcement official with knowledge of the matter said a woman in the group had been seeking a cosmetic medical procedure. Cartel gunmen targeted the group in a case of mistaken identity, the official said.

The four Americans drove into Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in a white minivan with North Carolina plates Friday, the FBI said in a statement. Matamoros is just south of Brownsville, Texas.

A member of the Mexican security forces stands near a white minivan with North Carolina plates and several bullet holes, at the crime scene where gunmen kidnapped four U.S. citizens who crossed into Mexico from Texas, on March 3, 2023.
A member of the Mexican security forces stands near a white minivan with North Carolina plates and several bullet holes at the scene where gunmen kidnapped four U.S. citizens who crossed into Mexico from Texas on Friday.AP

Shortly after they crossed into Mexico, the Americans were met with gunfire from unidentified shooters, the release said. 

A law enforcement source with knowledge of the matter said part of the kidnapping was captured on video that showed a gunman dragging people into a white pickup.

The gunmen “herded the four U.S. citizens into another vehicle and fled the scene with them,” the FBI said. 

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, said Monday in a statement that an “innocent Mexican citizen was tragically killed” during the kidnapping.

In contrast to the law enforcement official's comments, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at a daily news conference that the Americans were in the country to buy medicine — a common practice for people seeking cheaper medications across the southern border.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council said in a statement Monday that the kidnappings were “unacceptable.”

“Our thoughts are with the families of these individuals and we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular assistance,” the statement said.

“U.S. law enforcement is in touch with Mexican law enforcement. The Departments of State and Homeland Security are also coordinating with Mexican authorities. We’ll continue to coordinate with Mexico to bring those responsible to justice.”

The FBI and Mexican law enforcement are investigating, and the FBI is asking the public for information leading to arrests. 

Officials provided no further details about the abduction and did not identify the victims. 

The reward is for the safe return of the victims, as well as the arrests of those involved in the assault and kidnapping.

Anyone with information is urged to call the FBI’s San Antonio division at 210-225-6741. 

The State Department has a “Do Not Travel” warning for Tamaulipas state because of “crime and kidnapping.” It said organized crime activity, including gunbattles, armed robbery and kidnappings, are common along the northern border and in Ciudad Victoria.

"Criminal groups target public and private passenger buses, as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers and demanding ransom payments," the warning says.

Like other border cities, Tamaulipas gets vehicle and pedestrian traffic crossing both ways daily, although factors like the pandemic, increased violence and inspections can alter the flow. Communities including Brownsville and Matamoros often have symbiotic relationships with people on both sides of the border.

Some U.S. and international companies operate factories in Matamoros that bring U.S. materials and people to Mexico and export products back to the U.S. or other countries.

People in the factories, referred to as maquiladoras, may live in the U.S. if they have permission and work in Mexico.

People in the U.S. who live on the border find less expensive dental or medical care or pharmaceuticals in Mexico. People in Mexico may make day trips to department or retail stores they prefer in the U.S.

People from Mexico who are deemed eligible can qualify for border crossing passes that limit their travel for a short period, or they can get longer travel visas, which require going through an application process with a U.S. embassy or consulate.

Matamoros is home to warring factions of the Gulf drug cartel, as leadership changes have led to bloody infighting. Thousands of Mexicans have disappeared in the violence.

Shootouts there on Friday were so bad that the U.S. Consulate issued an alert about the danger and local authorities warned people to shelter in place. It was not immediately clear whether the abductions could have been connected to the violence.

Tamaulipas state police said people were killed and injured Friday but not how many. The state police said on social media that neither law enforcement nor the military were involved in “two armed incidents between unidentified civilians.”

Victims of violence in Matamoros and other large border cities of Tamaulipas often go uncounted, because the cartels have a history of taking bodies with them. Local media often avoid reporting on such incidents out of safety concerns, creating an information vacuum.

Tamaulipas state’s many border crossings with Texas make it lucrative for the cartels that move drugs, migrants and guns between Mexico and the U.S.

In 2021, Causa en Común, a nongovernmental group in Mexico, chronicled extreme violence that killed or injured an estimated 6,314 people in the first seven months of the year.

The group said there were at least 800 cases of torture in 2021, in addition to 640 incidents of dismemberment, mutilations and destruction of corpses; the discoveries of 502 clandestine graves; 418 massacres; and 341 murders of women that were perpetrated with extreme cruelty.