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Unanswered questions surround kidnapping of US citizens in Mexico

The motive for the attack on a group of four friends in Matamoros remains shrouded in mystery, as does the identity of the perpetrators and how investigators located them

Mexico
Soldiers stand guard outside the prosecutor's office and the facilities of the Forensic Medical Services, in Matamoros, Tamaulipas,, on March 7.DANIEL BECERRIL (REUTERS)
Pablo Ferri

The discovery by Mexican security forces of four US citizens kidnapped last week in Tamaulipas, has brought a race against time to a close. The case had threatened to turn into a major diplomatic conflict between the two countries and when it became known that the victims were American, the intervention of the FBI and the White House spurred the Mexican authorities, who found the missing persons in an isolated area a few kilometers outside the border city of Matamoros.

Two of the group of four friends, Zindell Brown and Shaeed Woodard, were found dead when search teams located the hut where they were being held. Of the two survivors, Latavia MacGee was unharmed while Eric Williams had suffered bullet wounds to his leg. They were delivered to US authorities on Tuesday and taken back across the border under FBI escort. The bodies of Brown and Woodard remained in Mexico for autopsies to be carried out by experts from the Tamaulipas Prosecutor’s Office ahead of their repatriation to the US.

The eventual resolution of the case, however, has left many questions unanswered, the primary one being the motive behind the kidnapping. During a press conference on Tuesday, the state prosecutor for Tamaulipas, Irving Barrios, said that the main thread of the ongoing investigation was that the attack was a case of mistaken identity, although he did not provide further details. The federal Secretary of Security, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, added that other lines of investigation should not be ruled out.

Barrios’ summary of the investigation opened the door for speculation: US media has suggested that the US tourists had been mistaken for Haitian smugglers, but did the kidnappers believe they were Haitian migrants who had somehow escaped the trafficking networks that criminals weave along the US-Mexico border? Barrios declined to elaborate.

Tamaulipas state prosecutor Irving Barrios during a press conference on Tuesday.
Tamaulipas state prosecutor Irving Barrios during a press conference on Tuesday.ALFREDO ESTRELLA (AFP)

The sophistication of the tracking and interception of the group has also not gone unnoticed. As many as eight vehicles were involved in the surveillance operation carried out by the kidnappers. Would a criminal organization have deployed such resources to take four Haitian migrants? It seems unlikely. The lack of official explanations from the authorities has fueled several theories. On Tuesday, Tamaulipas Governor Américo Villarreal pointed out that there was no indication any of the four had any relationship with US security agencies.

The identity of the kidnappers also remains unknown. When search teams located the US citizens a 24-year-old man, Jose Guadalupe N, who was allegedly acting as a lookout at the wooden hut, was arrested. When asked whether he was linked to any criminal organization, Barrios preferred not to speculate.

What the prosecutor did confirm is that Matamoros and the surrounding area is historically a stronghold of the Gulf Cartel, which has traditionally operated in Mexico’s northeast but has become splintered since the 2003 arrest of its leader, Osiel Cardenas. The drug kingpin’s extradition to the US in 2007 led to a rupture between the cartel and its armed faction, Los Zetas.

Mexican soldiers at the site where the four Americans were found, on March 7.
Mexican soldiers at the site where the four Americans were found, on March 7.DANIEL BECERRIL (REUTERS)

Los Zetas, who are renowned for their brutality, formed their own criminal organization in 2010 from which various splinter groups emerged, including the Scorpions and the Cyclones, who it has been suggested might have been behind the kidnapping, although no official statement has been made on that speculation. A report published two years ago by Lantia Consultores, a company that specializes in criminal analysis, stated that the Gulf Cartel “was no longer cohesive,” and had splintered into as many as 14 infighting factions.

It also remains unclear how the US citizens were located. Governor Villarreal said on Tuesday that the kidnappers had moved the group through different parts of the city before transferring them to the wooden hut in La Lagunona, a largely uninhabited network of dunes, lagoons, and scrub forests near the coast. The question is how they got there. The Tamaulipas Prosecutor’s Office had set up a telephone number and email address for anybody with information to contact the authorities, but Barrios did not reveal whether it was a tip-off from that source that led the search teams to the hut.

Furthermore, investigators had already conducted a search in the La Lagunona on Monday afternoon, hours before they found the four friends there. It was not the only place search teams visited twice. An anonymous caller had also guided them to a subdivision in the south of Matamoros where they claimed to have seen one of the vehicles used in the kidnapping, but when security forces arrived they found nothing there.

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