MEXICO CITY — Police in the Mexican border city of Matamoros early Thursday discovered five men, bound with zip ties, in a truck near the intersection where four Americans were kidnapped last week, with a note claiming to be from a Gulf Cartel faction saying it wanted to “hand over” those behind the abductions, authorities reported.
There was no official confirmation that the five men, who were found alive, were indeed behind Friday’s brazen attack, which left two of the Americans dead. But Mexican crime groups often leave notes or banners describing their actions or blaming their rivals, in a macabre form of public relations. And cartels have, in the past, turned over gunmen whose actions brought on the wrath of Mexican or U.S. officials.
The attack has become a flash point in U.S.-Mexico relations. Republican lawmakers have demanded the Biden administration declare Mexican cartels to be terrorist groups; some have called for U.S. military intervention.
“It seems like a strategic move to ease pressure,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City.
Mexican authorities have been combing Matamoros in an urgent hunt for the perpetrators of the attack. The Americans had traveled to Mexico in a rented minivan so one of them could undergo a cosmetic procedure in a border city known for offering cheap medical services, officials and family members have said. A few hours after crossing into Mexico, they came under fire. Bystander video captured men in black with protective vests and rifles forcing them into a pickup truck, trailing what appears to be blood.
Mexican security forces, acting on a tip, found the Americans on Tuesday morning in a wooden shack on the outskirts of Matamoros. Two were dead. Officials said they had been moved between several locations, including a clinic where at least one received treatment.
Mexican officials said Thursday they had opened a line of investigation into whether the attack might have been linked to the Americans’ prior involvement in narcotics activities. The Reuters news agency said it had seen a Mexican government document noting that at least three of the Americans had U.S. drug convictions.
Most appeared to involve minor charges. But Shaeed Woodard, who was killed in the attack, had been found guilty of manufacturing banned narcotics with the intent to distribute, Reuters reported.
Given the convictions, the Mexican document said, “it cannot be ruled out that the attack against [the Americans] could be directly linked to drug trafficking operations” that the gunmen thought the foreigners were engaged in, according to Reuters.
An official close to the investigation confirmed the report to The Washington Post. But the main hypothesis remained that the assailants mistook the Americans for someone else, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is open. No illegal drugs were found in the Americans’ minivan.
The victims’ relatives have described the trip as an effort by Latavia “Tay” McGee, 35, to undergo abdominoplasty — a tummy tuck. She was accompanied by Woodard, 34 this month, her cousin, and close friends Zindell Brown, 28, and Eric James Williams, 38.
McGee and Williams survived the attack and returned to the United States on Tuesday. Brown and Woodard did not; their bodies were repatriated on Thursday.
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Williams was coming out of surgery Thursday and unavailable to comment, his wife said. Michele Williams told The Post she hadn’t heard about the Mexican authorities’ line of inquiry. She said her husband’s drug charges were in the past. She’s heard only that the FBI thinks the Americans were victims of mistaken identity. “They were not involved in no drugs,” she said. “They did not go there for drugs.”
Family members of McGee, Brown and Woodard did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
Tyler Mattiace, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it was disappointing to see the media unquestioningly repeat the narrative about drug links.
“Blaming the victim is a strategy Mexican prosecutors frequently use to distract from their shockingly bad investigative skills,” he tweeted.
The attorney general’s office in Tamaulipas state said Thursday that it was investigating the clinic where the gunmen took the Americans. Williams was treated there for a gunshot wound to the leg.
It was not clear whether the assailants had ties to the clinic or forced medics to treat the wounded man.
Matamoros is thought to be in the grip of the Gulf Cartel, a major crime group that smuggles drugs and migrants and engages in extortion and illegal fuel sales.
State police discovered the five men in a black pickup truck in the city center with three automatic rifles and a note, signed by the Scorpions, a faction of the Gulf Cartel.
The writers said they had decided “to hand over those involved” in the kidnapping, who had “acted with their own criteria and a lack of discipline,” violating their rules against attacking innocent people.
They “strongly condemned” the attack, which they noted had also killed a Mexican passerby.
Eduardo Guerrero, the head of Lantia Intelligence, a Mexican firm that analyzes security trends, said the action appeared to follow the cartels’ tradition of giving up members who have caused them problems.
With the United States focusing on Matamoros and Mexico pouring security forces into the city, he said, it “will become an inhospitable place for crime groups for at least a year, I imagine. This will generate enormous losses for them.”
Cate Brown and Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff in Washington and Gabriela Martinez and Kevin Sieff in Mexico City contributed to this report.