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Within the last week, four U.S. citizens were allegedly assaulted and abducted in Mexico by the syndicate and drug trafficking organization Gulf Cartel.
Their abductions quickly launched a rescue operation from Mexican authorities — who ultimately discovered that two of the victims had been killed after the group crossed the southern border.
Soon after the group of friends — Latavia McGee, Eric Williams, Zindell Brown, and Shaeed Woodard — from South Carolina arrived in the city of Matamoros in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas on March 3, the four individuals were caught in a shootout between rival cartel gangs and forced into the back of a pickup truck at gunpoint.
Following the kidnapping, Tamaulipas officials said that cartel members moved the victims throughout the state to confuse and avoid efforts from authorities to rescue the Americans.
By Tuesday morning, authorities had discovered McGee and Williams in a small wooden house about six miles from the crime scene — in a place called La Lagunona in the town of El Tecolote. Williams survived with non-threatening gunshot wounds to his legs, while McGee remained unharmed.
Brown and Woodard did not survive.
Authorities transported the survivors just north of the U.S.-Mexico border near Brownsville, Texas, to receive medical treatment while the deceased were taken to a morgue in Matamoros for a forensic examination. Authorities transported the bodies back to the U.S. on Wednesday, The Daily Mail reported.
Relatives of the kidnapped reportedly said the four friends and one other friend had traveled to Mexico for McGee to undergo medical treatment to remove abdominal fat. Upon reaching the border, authorities denied the fifth member of the group, Cheryl Orange, entry into Mexico due to insufficient identification documents.
Orange allegedly wrote in a letter that she “would not be surprised if her friends got arrested because they are known to party and use narcotics,” according to NewsNation.
According to the U.S. Department of State, the city of Matamoros in Tamaulipas is under a “Do Not Travel” advisory, citing organized crime activity, including shootings, robberies, and kidnappings.
“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 reads.
Those close to the four individuals involved in the deadly abduction said the friends grew up together in South Carolina. According to an extensive report from The Daily Mail, all four involved in the Mexico kidnapping have a lengthy criminal history, which involved crimes ranging from drug possession and distribution to burglary and domestic violence to unlawful conduct towards a child.
Woodard, 33, worked at a hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and helped raise his extended family members, according to People.
“Shaeed was one of the good guys: gentle, humble, and sweet,” Sonya Singletary, niece, told People. “He was willing to help anybody and give you the shirt off his back, always smiling and positive.”
Brown lived in Myrtle Beach and has been described by family members as “a loving son, brother, uncle, and friend.”
“Zindell kept saying, ‘We shouldn’t go down,'” Zalandria Brown, sister, told The Associated Press. “This is like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from.”
McGee, 35, a mother of six from Myrtle Beach and cousin to Woodard, allegedly went to Mexico to receive the medical procedure for the second time in the last three years, according to her mother, Burgess.
“She was crying. I asked her how she was doing. She doing okay,” Burgess told ABC News affiliate WPDE. “She was crying because her brother [cousin Shaeed Woodard] got killed, and she watched him die. She watched two of them die. They died in front of her.”
Williams, 38, lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., with his wife, Michele, and their child.
Williams’ cousin, Jerry Wallace, told The New York Post on Wednesday that he’s now out of surgery and is “talking strong and everything.
“He [is] doing better than what he was,” Wallace said.
Mexican authorities arrested a suspect Tuesday allegedly tied to the fatal abduction.
Jose Guadalupe N., a Mexican National in his early 20s, was guarding the small wooden house outside Matamoros where cartel members held the Americans when authorities detained him. Authorities have not confirmed if Guadalupe is involved with the cartel suspected of kidnapping the U.S. nationals.
According to The Associated Press, an unidentified person claiming to be a part of the Gulf Cartel responsible for the fatal abduction “condemned the violence and purportedly turned over its own members who were involved to authorities.” The letter also includes an apology to the residents of Matamoros, the Mexican woman who died in the shooting, and the four Americans and their families.
“We have decided to turn over those who were directly involved and responsible in the events, who at all times acted under their own decision-making and lack of discipline,” the letter reads, adding that those individuals had gone against the cartel’s rules, which include “respecting the life and well-being of the innocent.”
NewsNation reported that Mexico authorities handcuffed five men turned over by the Gulf Cartel, claiming they were responsible for the deaths of Woodard and Brown and another unidentified person.
Mexican authorities are still searching for a motive for the kidnapping, with one possible theory that the American nationals were confused with Haitian drug smugglers.