U.S. and Mexican officials are investigating a brazen daytime shooting and kidnapping targeting four Americans who crossed into Matamoros, while immigrant-rights activists said they now have heightened fears about the safety of Black migrant populations who are in the area and may be waiting in encampments as they seek asylum.
Matamoros is on the other side of the border from Brownsville, Texas, a gateway into coastal Tamaulipas state. U.S. government employees working in Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo are restricted from traveling beyond a limited area within the cities, and are not allowed to travel between cities in Tamaulipas using interior Mexican highways.
“Organized crime activity – including gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion, and sexual assault – is common along the northern border and in Ciudad Victoria,” the State Department says in its advisory warning Americans to not travel to the area. “Criminal groups target public and private passenger buses, as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers and demanding ransom payments.”
On Friday, four Americans who had driven in a white minivan to Mexico from South Carolina — LaTavia Washington McGee, Eric Williams, Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown — for a cosmetic surgical procedure were attacked and taken from the scene by gunmen who also killed a 33-year-old Mexican woman bystander. Multiple media outlets cited officials as saying that the cartel members may have mistaken the Americans, who are Black, for Haitian drug smugglers.
Woodard and Brown were killed in the attack. Williams was shot three times in the legs and was receiving treatment at a Texas hospital, and Washington McGee also survived. Mexican security forces found the Americans in a wood cabin southeast of Matamoros on Tuesday; a 24-year-old male who was acting as a guard was arrested.
“In the wake of the attack, the FBI immediately contacted our Mexican law enforcement and security partners in an effort to locate the victims,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a Tuesday statement.
“The Justice Department will be relentless in pursuing justice on their behalf,” he added. “We will do everything in our power to identify, find, and hold accountable the individuals responsible for this attack on American citizens.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price noted at Tuesday’s briefing that “the FBI is engaged on this, Mexican authorities are engaged on this — it’s not for me or for the State Department to be prescriptive, but ultimately we want to see accountability for the violence that has been inflicted on these Americans that tragically led to the death of two of them.”
Drug cartels pose “a challenge in parts of Mexico… that has spillover effects for Americans and for the United States,” he said.
“It is a long-running challenge, but we are going to work cooperatively, collaboratively with our Mexican partners in any way we can to help address these pockets of insecurity, the drug trafficking, the other security threats that are at or near – sometimes cross over into – our border,” Price said in response to a question about whether cartels should be designated as terrorist groups. “When it comes to the drug cartels, we are going to do what is most effective to limit their ability to traffic in their wares. This is something that our colleagues at the DEA are extremely focused on. We have laws on the books. We have designated these criminal organizations, these drug-trafficking organizations, consistent with the authorities that we as a government have, but we are always going to look at every tool that is – by law or any other authority available to us – to attempt to work with our Mexican partners to crack down on what is a threat to Mexicans and to Americans alike.”
The Haitian Bridge Alliance, an immigrant-rights nonprofit, said Monday that the group learned about the attack from migrants in an encampment near the shooting.
Fearing for Haitian migrants and asylum-seekers on the Mexico side of the border, Haitian Bridge Alliance said it reached out to U.S. and Mexican officials with concerns about their safety.
“We strongly advise the migrant populations in the Matamoros area, including many Black asylum seekers, to be extremely cautious,” Co-founder and Executive Director Guerline Jozef said. “…These cruel acts of violence show that whether you are seeking asylum or U.S. citizens of African descent just visiting the Matamoros area, there is no safe place for Black people at the U.S.-Mexico border.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a Tuesday press conference that President Biden “has been kept updated on this incident” and “senior members of the White House have also been engaged.”
“I can confirm that U.S. officials are in touch with the families of the individuals… we will respect their privacy regarding our conversations with them,” she said. “We appreciate the hard work of the Justice Department and the FBI, DHS, and DEA for their swift response to this awful incident and for their continued collaboration with Mexican authorities. These U.S. agencies remain in close touch with their counterparts, and we expect that they will share more as they can.”
“Attacks on U.S. citizens are unacceptable, no matter where or under what circumstances they happen,” Jean-Pierre added. “We will continue to work closely with the Mexican government to ensure justice is done in this case.”
The administration is “committed to applying the full weight of our efforts and resources to counter” cartel organizations, she said, including recent Treasury sanctions.
The U.S. Consulate General reminded U.S. citizens that Tamaulipas is classified as “Level 4: Do Not Travel” in the State Department’s travel advisory for Mexico.