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What we know about Matamoros and the kidnapped Americans

Video posted on social media on March 3 shows gunmen loading several people into the back of a pickup truck in Matamoros, Mexico. (Video: Twitter)
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Two of the four U.S. citizens who were kidnapped in Mexico were found dead, Mexican officials said Tuesday. The other two were rescued and returned to the United States; a suspect was in custody.

The Americans crossed into Matamoros, a city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, from Brownsville, Tex., in a white minivan with North Carolina plates, the FBI said.

Michele Williams told The Washington Post on Tuesday that Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown had died during their trip to Mexico. Williams’s husband, Eric James Williams, and his friend Latavia “Tay” McGee were injured. The extent of their injuries was not clear Tuesday evening.

The passengers came under fire soon after entering the city, and then were placed into another vehicle and taken away. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the four had “crossed the border to buy medicine in Mexico” when they were caught in a crossfire “between groups.”

Matamoros is on the south bank of the Rio Grande, directly across the border from Brownsville. A Mexican official said the Americans were found in the village of Tecolote, about 15 miles from Matamoros.

“We will do everything in our power to identify, find, and hold accountable the individuals responsible for this attack on American citizens,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement released Tuesday.

Here is what we know about Matamoros, the kidnapped Americans, and the reasons people cross the U.S.-Mexico border, including for health care.

What is Matamoros known for?

Every day, tens of thousands of people either walk or drive across the bridge from Brownsville to Matamoros, home to 580,000 people, for doctor’s appointments, commerce or mundane activities such as having lunch. The glistening green Rio Grande river snakes between the sister cities.

Officially known as “Heroica Matamoros,” it’s in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, one of the most crime-ridden in Mexico and one of six states to which the State Department advises Americans against traveling, citing the risk of crime and kidnapping.

“Criminal groups target public and private passenger buses, as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers and demanding ransom payments,” the department’s latest travel advisory says.

Tamaulipas has a long history of lawlessness, being a main route for migrants headed to the United States, as well as for the bustling and integrated border life shared by Mexicans and Americans on both sides.

Is Matamoros safe?

In the past decade or so, Tamaulipas has become emblematic of Mexico’s drug-related violence, and criminal groups and drug gangs routinely fight turf wars, terrorize communities and run kidnapping rackets.

Most recently, the city became known for its squalid makeshift tent camps where thousands of asylum seekers were forced to wait while they made their cases under former president Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program.

Over a decade ago, a series of migrant massacres in the city of San Fernando, roughly 85 miles south of Matamoros, stunned the country and the world. In 2010, authorities discovered the bodies of 72 migrants from Central America who had been killed by the Zetas, a ruthless group that broke from the Gulf drug cartel in the mid-2000s.

In 2011, gunmen yanked at least 193 people — some of them Central American migrants — off buses, bludgeoned them to death and dumped their bodies in 47 clandestine graves. The two cases of mass killings of civilians at remote ranches 90 minutes south of Texas marked a new level of barbarity in Mexico’s drug war.

Matamoros was not spared of this wave of violence. In 2011, 18 members of a family were taken from three homes in the city on the morning of July 9. While the women and children were freed days later, the men were never returned despite several payments of ransom.

Although the city is in the hands of the Gulf Cartel, Mexican authorities have made solid progress in improving security. According to official data, the numbers of kidnappings and homicides, locally and across the state, have significantly dropped in recent years. There are far fewer high-profile attacks like Friday’s kidnappings, and residents live in relative peace.

Four U.S. citizens remain missing after they were kidnapped in Mexico. The Americans came under fire after crossing the border from Texas into Matamoros. (Video: Rich Matthews/The Washington Post)

Who are the kidnapped Americans?

Officials did not immediately name the victims. The Americans have been identified by family members as three friends who were accompanying a fourth who planned to undergo a medical procedure there.

McGee, Woodard, Brown and Eric Williams were traveling in a minivan with North Carolina plates and had reportedly just crossed the border from Brownsville to Matamoros on Friday when they were fired on and abducted by unidentified assailants.

Michele Williams — of Lake City, S.C. — told The Post on Tuesday that her husband was back in Brownsville. She said the four, who grew up together in South Carolina, were in Mexico to help McGee get a cosmetic procedure. McGee and Woodard are cousins.

“I was glad that my husband was coming home, but I want to send condolences to the other family members who aren’t coming home,” she said.

She said her husband was close friends with Brown, whose family is struggling to understand his death.

“This is like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from,” Zalandria Brown told the Associated Press before the deaths were announced. She identified one of the kidnap victims as her younger brother Zindell of Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Christina Hickson, the mother of 28-year-old Zindell Brown, told ABC affiliate WPDE in Myrtle Beach that she identified her son from footage of the kidnapping shared online.

“I was able to follow each one as they would be placed on the truck,” she said. “I knew immediately that was him.”

Why do Americans cross the border for health care?

Pharmacies, dentists and optometrists begin appearing almost as soon as you cross the border into northern Mexico. Numbers are difficult to come by, but Americans regularly cross the border for health care, as well as cosmetic surgeries, experts said.

One of the most common health-care reasons for Americans to cross the border is to visit a dentist, according to academics studying the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It’s a very common phenomenon to travel to Reynosa or Matamoros for medicines, or medical procedures, and especially to see dentists because it’s less expensive than in Texas,” said Nestor Rodriguez, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Some Mexican Americans may feel more familiar with Mexican doctors rather than with American ones.”

Prescription medicines are far cheaper in Mexico, said Kathleen Staudt, a professor emerita of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso.

For people who can’t afford medical insurance — Texas is among a handful of states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — health care in Mexico is an affordable option, Staudt said.

Mexican pharmacies also offer some advantages over those in the United States, she said, including an on-site doctor who can offer an inexpensive intervention, in Spanish. The caveat is that people traveling for medicines or care must have time to wait in lines to cross the border.

Another advantage of Mexican pharmacies is that they offer many prescription medicines over the counter; that means patients can skip the wait and cost of a doctor’s appointment.

“The pharmacy business is a thriving one on the border,” said Ricardo Ainslie, a professor of border culture and history at the University of Texas at Austin. “Matamoros is a big destination for health care, and so are towns and cities 50 miles west of Matamoros.”

Medicines for high blood pressure and diabetes and antibiotics are among those that Americans search for across the border, said Jose M. Villarreal, a professor of Chicano Latino studies at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Others may also be looking for painkillers such as OxyContin, Ainslie said. “People with addiction problems, who don’t have prescriptions or don’t want to be tracked regarding their consumption, may travel to Matamoros,” he said.

Some people also travel to Mexico for surgical procedures. Ainslie said northern Mexico has several reputable medical schools where people may travel “to access qualified health care at the fraction of the cost of American health care or surgeries despite it being completely out of pocket.”

What are other reasons people in border towns regularly move between U.S. and Mexico?

People living in border towns such as Brownsville or Matamoros are often binational and for generations have been traveling to see family or friends or for work and school, according to border studies experts.

“There are people who travel regularly from cities in Texas to Reynosa or Matamoros or other towns in between in order to meet family,” Rodriguez said. “There are so many families that are divided by the border.”

People living on the American side may also cross the border for more “casual reasons,” he said. Sometimes Rodriguez’s students cross the border for a good meal on the Mexican side.

Similarly, Amelie Ramirez, director of the Institute of Health Promotion Research in San Antonio, said Hispanic people often cross the Texas border to purchase groceries.

“Since the cartel violence grew in these areas, I would guess the percentage of White Americans traveling to Mexico has dropped due to security fears,” Ainslie said. “But it still exists, and people regularly travel to Matamoros for all kinds of reasons.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s bureau of statistics, at least 948,895 people entered the United States through the Brownsville border in January; in January 2000 that number was at least 1,809,300.

Kevin Sieff, Leo Sands and Ben Brasch contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Kathleen Staudt. The article has been corrected.