Violent kidnapping of tourists in Mexico leaves three dead, letter of apology and surrender of cartel members

The case is causing an uproar in the US. Four Americans were forcibly kidnapped in Mexico a week ago by gunmen who filmed the abduction and posted the footage on the Internet. Three people died and two of those kidnapped were later released. The criminals will have mistaken the Americans for drug traffickers and belong to a cartel, which has now sent a letter of apology and handed over five of its members to local authorities.

Investigation into deadly kidnapping of Americans in Mexico continues after cartel apologizes and hands over evidence

A week after the violent kidnappings of four Americans in Mexico, investigators are still trying to figure out how and why it happened, even as a cartel apologized for carrying out what one victim’s father called “a senseless crime,” which resulted in death of two American tourists and a Mexican woman.

The case remains “very confusing” for investigators, who are still gathering information and looking at all sides of last Friday’s abduction, a Tamaulipas prosecutor familiar with the investigation told CNN.

Although authorities have not publicly named any suspects, a letter of apology was issued Thursday by the Gulf Cartel, believed to be responsible for the kidnappings, and the group handed over five of its members to local authorities, according to videos circulating on internet and a version of the letter obtained by CNN from an official familiar with the investigation.

CNN was unable to confirm the authenticity of the photos and has reached out to Mexican and US authorities for comment.

“THE [Cartel do Golfo] apologizes to the community of Matamoros, to the relatives of Ms. Areli, and the American people and families who were affected,” the handwritten letter reads, referring to a Mexican woman who was also killed by a stray bullet in the melee.

While investigators believe the letter is authentic, Mexican and US law enforcement officials involved in the investigation strongly doubt the sincerity of the group’s apology, said the official who shared the letter with CNN.

A person has been arrested, who is said to be performing “victim surveillance operations,” Américo Villarreal, the governor of Tamaulipas, said on Tuesday. The person was identified as Jose “N.”, 24 years old. Officials have not confirmed whether the man has any ties to criminal organizations.

The bodies of two Americans killed in the kidnapping – Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown – were handed over to US diplomatic authorities on Thursday after a forensic examination, Tamaulipas Attorney General Irving Barrios said on Twitter.

“I tried to make sense and I tried to be strong about it,” Woodard’s father, James Woodard, told reporters Thursday, the day his son would have celebrated his 34th birthday. “It was just a senseless crime.”

The two survivors – Latvia Washington McGee and Eric Williams – returned to the US on Tuesday to be treated at a hospital. Williams, who was shot three times in the legs, has since had two surgeries and had screws inserted into his legs, his wife said on a page to raise money for Williams’ medical and living expenses.

A fifth member of the American team, Cheryl Orange, had planned to travel with the group on the day of the abduction, but had to stay behind because she did not have the proper identification to cross the border. As he told CNN, he now feels guilty for almost missing the attack.

“I fought with myself at first about it and everyone tells me I should be grateful. I’d love to be on Tay’s side,” Orange said, referring to Washington McGee’s “best friend” nicknamed “Tay.”

The group of very close friends had traveled from South Carolina to Matamoros, Mexico for Washington McGee to undergo a medical procedure. But the friends were violently intercepted by gunmen who shot at the Americans’ van, put them in the back of a truck and took them away, according to Washington McGee’s mother and according to video footage of the encounter.

The victims were taken to several locations before being found at a home near Matamoros on Tuesday, Villarreal said. Tamaulipas prosecutors have since found an ambulance used to transport the victims for first aid at a clinic, which authorities also located, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

“Hearing your voice was music to my ears”

When the group of friends crossed the border into Matamoros last Friday, Orange stayed behind at a hotel in Brownsville, Texas, growing worried as night fell and the friends didn’t return, she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday.

“I said something was wrong,” Orange said. She then contacted her boyfriend and her brother Washington McGee to say she was worried.

When it was time for Orange to leave the hotel the next morning, there was still no sign of Washington McGee and the others, Orange reported. At that moment, she became so worried that she decided to call the police.

Orange reported the group missing Saturday to Brownsville police, according to a police report. The report says police checked a local jail to make sure no one was taken into custody, but no further action was taken.

Orange later ended up seeing the video of the kidnapping, which was circulating online, showing Washington McGee being pushed into the back of a truck by armed gunmen and the bodies of other victims being dragged alongside him.

“My body shook. I dropped the phone. My stomach was in knots and I just started praying for their return,” she said.

Finally, hearing Washington McGee’s voice after he was discovered alive, Orange was able to feel some relief. “It made me a little more comfortable. It was music to my ears to hear his voice,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Woodard and Brown families are left to deal with the loss of their loved ones.

“It was hard for me to watch those videos and see him being dragged and thrown into the back of a vehicle. It’s like God was already preparing me to know that the worst-case scenario was probably going to happen,” Woodard’s father said after watching the video of the abduction.

Woodard had accompanied his cousin, Washington McGee, to Mexico for his surgery and to celebrate his 34th birthday, his father said. He described his son as “beloved” and a “loved person”.

“If they had told me this day was coming, I never would have believed it,” James Woodard said. He later added: “A parent never expects to lose a child.”

Letter of apology after the arrest of the cartel leader

U.S. and Mexican law enforcement authorities suspect the Gulf Cartel’s apology letter was issued after the kidnapping exposed the cartel to a lot of attention and public scrutiny of its actions, according to the U.S. official who confirmed the letter’s authenticity.

In its letter, the cartel apologized to the “Matamoro Society, to the relatives of Ms. Areli, and the American people and the families affected,” referring to the Mexican woman who was killed by a stray bullet.

It’s common for Mexican cartels, especially in the country’s northeast, to send messages to authorities or rival groups after high-profile incidents, according to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University who studies cartels.

The apology came after a local Gulf Cartel leader wanted for earlier kidnappings was arrested in the city of Reynosa, about 90 kilometers west of Matamoros, according to a US official briefed on the arrest.

There is no clear connection to the kidnapping of the Americans. But as CNN has already reported, the official believes members of the Gulf Cartel attacked the Americans in Matamoros after mistaking them for Haitian drug smugglers.

The local cartel leader, Ernesto Sanchez-Rivera, is also known as “Metro 22” and “La Mierda” and is also known to have links to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the same source added.

CNN has reached out to the local district attorney for more information about the bust, but has yet to hear back.

The kidnapping of Americans has brought intense scrutiny to efforts to combat cartel violence in Mexico, including from Republican U.S. lawmakers who have called for the cartels to be designated as terrorist organizations and signal plans to introduce legislation that would allow the U.S. military to USA to act in Mexico.

The pressure from Republicans was quickly decried by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who says the actions would violate Mexico’s sovereignty.

CNN’s Omar Fajardo, Fidel Gutierrez, Karol Suarez, Sharif Paget, Alberto Bello and David Shortell contributed to this story.

Top photo (left to right) LaTavia Washington McGee and Eric Williams survived the kidnapping, while Shaeed Woodard and Zindel Brown were killed. Photo by Michele Williams and Facebook

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