“HEARST” for Borderland Beat 

New details about the Americans’ trip to Mexico and the cartel context surrounding their kidnapping by Gulf Cartel members in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.

This is a continuation of yesterday’s story covering the kidnapping, which you can read here.

Please see this story which covers the announcement that two were found dead and two were found alive.

Details about the Four Americans

As covered at the end of yesterday’s live thread, we now know the identities of the four Americans who were kidnapped in Matamoros. Their names are:

  • Latavia Washington McGee

Grew up in Lake City, South Carolina, 
Currently lives in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina

  • Shaeed Woodard

    Grew up in Lake City, South Carolina

  • Eric James Williams

    [also identified by some outlets as Eric Wise]

  • Zindell Brown

    28 years old 

The relatives of the victims told news outlets that Latavia Washington was traveling down to Mexico for a cosmetic surgery procedure, which was presumably cheaper outside of the US.

Latavia’s cousin, Shaheed, and two friends, Eric and Zindell, accompanied her on the road trip to Mexico. 

According to ABC15 News, Zindell called his mother after the group set out, while they were traveling through Mississippi. Zindell told her that he was going to support one of his friends who was having a surgical procedure in Mexico. 

Zindell then contacted his sister, Zalayna Grant. She later described it, saying: 

“When I texted him I said, ‘Where you at?’ And I was like ‘What you doing?’ And he said, ‘Riding. I’m in Mississippi.’ And I called because I needed to see this for sure. So, we video-chatted with each other. He was talking to me. He talked to my baby.”

“And he said ‘we are about to get back on the road. I will talk to you later.’ And I said ‘OK, just let me know your destinations.’ Because after he said they were going to Mexico, I was just like ‘be careful, be careful,’ and then when I hung up with him, I sent him some text messages. You know, letting him know to be careful.”

“I said, ‘If y’all make it into Mexico. Just be very careful. Be aware of your surroundings. If you run into any cartel roadblocks or anything. Don’t fight. Don’t resist whatever they tell you to do, all of you all do it. Because at least you have a chance if you do what they ask you to do,'”

Based on this quote, it seems that at least some of the four Americans were aware of the dangerous cartel roadblocks which are common near the Tamaulipas-US border. This may give insight as to why Latavia asked the three men to accompany her on the trip, potentially viewing them as protection in a region which regularly preys on Americans. 

On Friday, March 3, 2023, the four Americans drove into the Mexican city of Matamoros in their white minivan with North Carolina license plates. The FBI San Antonio Division office stated that their vehicle came under fire shortly after it entered Mexico.

Just how long is “shortly after”? Well, the white minivan crashed into another vehicle at Primera Street and Lauro Villar Avenue. This is an approximately 6 minute drive away from the Matamoros International bridge according to Google Maps.

Latavia’s mother told ABC15 News that she was contacted, via telephone, by medical staff after her daughter didn’t arrive for her cosmetic surgery procedure.

The Cartel Group in Matamoros

The dominant cartel group in the city of Matamoros is the Gulf Cartel (Cártel del Golfo, CDG). 

The Gulf Cartel is split into various factions and the faction that controls the city is known as the Matamoros faction. This faction is believed to be in an alliance with the Rio Bravo faction, the Sur faction, the Centro faction and the Los Zetas splinter group called Zetas Vieja Escuela (or Zetas New School).

The CDG Matamoros faction is believed to control the municipalities of the aforementioned city, as well as nearby Valle Hermoso. Their ally factions tend to control the more eastern regions in the state of Tamaulipas. 

It’s worth noting that there was recently a division within the Matamoros faction, where those loyal to the old bosses and their family (the Cárdenas Guillén) became known as Los Ciclones. Meanwhile there is another subfaction within the group, known as Espartanos, who followed the leadership of El Contador and El Vaquero – who sought to break away from the old family leadership. 

Both Contador and Vaquero, however, were arrested in recent years. How the faction currently functions and how much the previous split still lingers within the group dynamics is unclear.

A social media post in which a cartel group allegedly claimed responsibility for the abduction made its rounds shortly after the attack happened. In the post, the CDG Matamoros subgroup Grupo Esporciones reportedly claims they were behind the kidnapping. 

The current iteration of Grupo Escorpiones (the original version worked under Tony Tormenta but ceased to exist after his 2010 death) is believed to have emerged in 2015. Whether it is an armed wing or a rebranding of Los Ciclones is debated online, with no clear answer.

The social media post’s claim about CDG Matamoros – Grupo Escorpiones being involved seems highly plausible. Just last month the group released a large-scale interrogation video in which a number of alleged crystal meth dealers were questioned while surrounded by hitmen. The release of this video speaks to the current level of criminal impunity they believe they possess within Matamoros and speaks to the unabashed manner in which they operate within the city.

CDG was Attempting to Target Haitians

The aforementioned social media post also alleges that the 4 American victims were Haitian migrants that were “armed and assaulting” and had shot the innocent female bystander. Grupo Escorpion goes on to claim that they will not allow migrants to “continue robbing people.” 

The American victims were not, in fact, Haitian migrants living in Matamoros but they may have been mistaken for them due to an overall lack of black American or Mexican citizens in the city.

In Matamoros, there are large tent encampments in which foreign migrants from places like Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Cuba live as they await the ending of the US’s Title 42 border restriction. 

If the social media message is authentic, then it’s likely that the Americans were shot at due to a case of mistaken identity. If the social media message is not authentic, it still leaves open the possibility that the Americans were targeted for other reasons.

American news organization CNN reported that “investigators believe a Mexican cartel likely mistook them for Haitian drug smugglers, the official said, adding investigators have not identified any concerning criminal history on the part of the Americans.”

It’s interesting to note that even well respected newspapers like Reforma wrote articles (which can be viewed without a paywall here) which claimed the American victims were Haitian migrants in the headline, citing “sources close to the case”. 

The article goes on to say “the informants pointed out that videos from security cameras suggest that, due to their physical characteristics, two of the deceased and the injured woman are from the Caribbean country.”

This seems to speak to the general commonality of mislabeling black people as “Haitian immigrants” within Matamoros.

Previous Cases and Their Outcomes

So, what’s likely to happen to the surviving American victims who were kidnapped by the CDG gunmen. There are three major possibilities. Either they are (1) released alive, (2) they are killed and their remains found, or (3) they are killed and their remains are disposed of in a way that they are unlikely to be found. 

Below is a brief overview of what happened in the past when Americans were taken in high profile abductions like this.

Sources: Reforma, CNN, El Universal, La Jornada, Heraldo de México, Tamaulipas Código Rojo, El Guzman Post 1, Post 2, KRGV, US Embassy in Mexico, El Occidental, LatinUS, El Imparcial, Associated Press, BBC, CSPAN, San Diego Union Tribune