The Playa Bagdad clue: how the search for the four US citizens kidnapped in Mexico unfolded
Mexican authorities are working on the assumption that the kidnap of four US citizens in Matamoros, two of whom were found dead, was a case of mistaken identity by drug cartels
To the east of Matamoros, before reaching the coast, there is a vast network of dunes, lagoons, and scrub forests, where a few scattered houses and ranches occasionally interrupt the wilderness: miles and miles of nothing, a perfect place to hide and to do what can’t be seen. For years, criminals used a property in the area called La Bartolina to dispose of corpses. It is also where the four American tourists kidnapped last Friday in Matamoros were located.
It was a bittersweet end to an incident that had threatened to turn into a diplomatic crisis at a sensitive moment for US-Mexico relations. The Republican Party has made the management of the migration crisis its weapon of choice against the administration of President Joe Biden and Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed a bill that would “set the stage” for the US military to stage operations against organized crime groups south of the border. Meanwhile, several US border states are pushing for Mexico’s drug cartels to be designated as terrorist groups.
The FBI had offered rewards for information that helped locate the four American tourists and the White House described the situation as “unacceptable.” The State Department has updated its warning to travelers to Tamaulipas, classifying it as a Level 4 location – its highest travel advisory designation – and urged US citizens to avoid the region. In contrast to other cases, the speed with which the authorities acted proved providential to prevent an even worse outcome. Of the four US citizens, two were found dead: Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown. Eric Williams had taken a gunshot wound to his and the fourth, Latavia McGee, was found in perfect health, beyond the undoubted terror of her experience.
The state prosecutor for Tamaulipas, Irving Barrios, reported that the main line of investigation points to a “mix-up,” although he did not provide further details. US media has speculated that the four friends were mistaken for a group of Haitian drug traffickers, but Barrios did not offer any comment on the hypothesis. Asked about the identity of the criminal group that could have been behind the kidnapping, the prosecutor pointed out that Matamoros has historically been the stronghold of the Gulf Cartel. What follows is an outline of what occurred between March 3 and 7, based on information compiled by the Tamaulipas Prosecutor’s Office and US government officials, as quoted by US media.
The four friends had set out from Lake City, South Carolina to drive to Mexico. The group was close-knit, according to Zalandria Brown, Zindell Brown’s sister. The distance from Lake City to Matamoros is about 1,430 miles and the friends’ journey took them across four states, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, before they crossed the border at Brownsville.
At 9:18 am on March 3, the Chrysler Pacifica drove into Matamoros at the Puente Viejo, in the Moderna neighborhood, the northernmost part of the Mexican city. Family members lost contact with the four friends after they crossed the border due to the poor cell phone signal. According to US authorities, they became lost while looking for the doctor’s office where McGee had an appointment for a cosmetic surgery operation. She had previously traveled to Mexico for medical issues and had never encountered any problems. Both Zalandria Brown and McGee’s mother told US media that they advised the friends not to travel. Latavia McGee is the mother of six children.
They drove around Matamoros for a while and public security cameras located them shortly before 11:00am on one of its main roads, Cavazos Lerma Boulevard. At 11:00am, the cameras picked up a gray Volkswagen Jetta that began to follow them. Over the next 45 minutes, up to eight different vehicles were involved in the pursuit, interception, and kidnapping.
The last of these, a white GMC Sierra, cut off the four friends and they were forced inside. According to the Tamaulipas Prosecutor’s Office, when they attempted to flee the shooting started. Videos uploaded to social media on Friday show the kidnappers forcing the group into the trunk of the white Sierra after the gunfire. When the authorities arrived, they found $3 in cash, ATM cards and membership cards for different establishments along with some receipts, which allowed the investigators to establish the possible identity of the victims.
Little happened on Friday or Saturday. The nationality of the victims was still unknown and the incident did not make the news in Mexico: in a country with more than 100,000 missing persons, a group of armed men kidnapping four people is not necessarily connected to a potential ransom.
The authorities in Tamaulipas contacted the US consulate in Matamoros while personnel from the Attorney General’s Office visited several clinics and hospitals, both private and public, in the city to see if they could find any of the four. The logic was sound: the videos circulating from the previous day show the four friends, unconscious, being carried like sacks of grain. However, the investigators had no luck. When asked, health care workers at the centers said they had not received any gunshot victims over the last few hours.
At that time, what little public information was available was confusing. On Friday, the state police reported a couple of “incidents” in Matamoros, with casualties and injuries. The only confirmed victim at the time was a 33-year-old Mexican woman. On March 7 the state governor, Américo Villarreal, explained that there were not two events but only one: one of the bullets fired by the kidnappers flew a block and a half from the scene, hitting the woman, who died shortly afterward.
On Sunday, investigators began to examine footage from the security cameras. They reconstructed the route of the friends’ vehicle and noticed the large number of vehicles involved following them. The number of people involved in the kidnapping remains a mystery. The Attorney General’s Office has said that it detected four armed men getting out of the one of the pursuit vehicles.
That evening, the FBI turned the case on its head when the agency announced that the four missing persons were US citizens and that they had crossed the border into Matamoros on the Friday. Rewards for information that could help locate the victims and find those responsible for the kidnapping were offered.
On Monday, the case blew up in the media. US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar released a statement noting that his government has “no higher priority than the safety of our citizens” while laying out the dangers involved in traveling to Tamaulipas. The State Department website warning reads: “Heavily armed members of criminal groups often patrol areas of the state and operate with impunity particularly along the border region from Reynosa to Nuevo Laredo. In these areas, local law enforcement has limited capacity to respond to incidents of crime.”
The White House also issued a statement through Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre: “We are closely following the assault and kidnapping of four US citizens in Matamoros, Mexico. These sorts of attacks are unacceptable. Our thoughts are with the families of these individuals, and we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular assistance.”
Mexican investigators, including the armed forces and federal and local prosecutors among other agencies, on Monday concentrated their search around Playa Bagdad, a coastal area near Matamoros, but turned up nothing. The Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office set up a telephone number and email address for anyone with information on the whereabouts of the missing persons or the vehicles involved in the kidnapping.
Searches continued into the evening and a call to the emergency number led investigators to a “camp” consisting of a wooden hut raised on stilts and an old camper van at an unidentified location. The caller had said the US citizens would be found there but when the search party arrived there was no trace of the four friends.
Another call said that one of the vehicles involved in the kidnapping was on Guinea Street, in a subdivision south of the city. But again, when agents arrived at the location, they found nothing. Later that night another caller provided the same information but when a search team returned to the area there was no sign of the vehicle or any suspicious activity.
Early on Tuesday morning, without explanation, investigators returned to the area around Playa Bagdad and La Lagunona, where they found the four missing persons in a small wooden hut and arrested a 24-year-old man, José Guadalupe N., who was apparently acting as a lookout. When the authorities arrived, two of the four friends were dead, although the cause remains unknown. Neither the prosecutor, Barrios, nor Governor Villarreal has released any details. Barrios said autopsies are being carried out by experts from the Prosecutor’s Office.
While the authorities were tracking down the four friends, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was holding his daily press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City. At 9am, a journalist asked about the case. At that moment, Secretary of Security Rosa Icela Rodríguez quietly told López Obrador: “They have already found them” and handed the president her cell phone. Governor Villarreal was on the line.
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