It all started on Friday, from videos that began to circulate on social media. In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, armed men, dressed in tactical gear, loaded the bodies of other men, apparently unconscious, into the trunk of a white pickup truck after a shootout. It was just the latest example of the power of organized crime in Mexico, capable of acting in the heart of a city, in broad daylight, as if they were just cleaning up after a road accident.
In the first hours, even in the first days, the matter was regarded as just another example of the war-like conditions of the country, where violence runs rampant. In a statement, the Tamaulipas police gave some details: “During the last hour there have been two armed incidents between unidentified civilians,” that resulted in “loss of life and injuries,” the text read. Not even the police knew how many victims there were or how many wounded, let alone where they were. It was later learned that a woman had died as a result of a stray bullet.
However, there was one detail that was strange. The videos showed that the gunmen, in addition to carrying the unconscious bodies of other men, had forced a woman into the bed of the truck. She was a Black woman, with a long mane of light-colored dreadlocks. In some media there was speculation that they were Haitians, given the number of citizens of the Caribbean country that have arrived at the border in recent years. But everything changed on Sunday night, when the FBI reported that the four people abducted are US citizens.
In a statement released Sunday, the FBI reported that four US citizens crossed the border between Brownsville and Matamoros on Friday in a “white minivan” with North Carolina license plates. Shortly after crossing, unidentified gunmen opened fire on the van: “All four Americans were placed in a vehicle and taken from the scene by armed men.” On Monday, US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said in a statement that various US justice agencies were working with Mexican authorities to recover the missing US citizens.
The White House has condemned the “unacceptable” kidnapping. President Joe Biden is aware of the situation, confirmed presidential spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre. “Our thoughts are with the families of these individuals and we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular assistance and U.S. law enforcement is in touch with Mexican law enforcement”, she stated. Jean-Pierre declined to answer other questions related to this case, citing privacy concerns.
The State Department’s travel alert for Tamaulipas advises American citizens not to travel to the region, due to “crime and kidnapping”. “Organized crime activity – including gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion, and sexual assault – is common along the northern border and in Ciudad Victoria. Criminal groups target public and private passenger buses, as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers and demanding ransom payments”, according to the alert.
A source close to the Tamaulipas Prosecutor’s Office indicated that “state authorities have been in contact with their US counterparts, to establish search groups. The State Search Commission, the Armed Forces, etc. are participating.” “Fingerprints have been taken from the truck of these people, shell casings have been recovered and more,” the source added.
In a high-profile case such as this one – in which the ambassador intervenes and the FBI offers rewards for information to help find the absentees – the framework of collaboration in security matters between the two countries is once again in the spotlight. At the end of 2020, Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies approved a law limiting the presence and movements of foreign agents in Mexico. This followed the arrest, months earlier, of the former Secretary of Defense, Salvador Cienfuegos, in the United States.
The Mexican government was annoyed by the ways of the neighboring government, then in the hands of Donald Trump. The US State Department withdrew the charges against Cienfuegos and sent him back to Mexico, along with the evidence gathered against him, so that the Attorney General of the Republic (FGR) could assess whether to proceed against him or not. Months later, the FGR decided not to do it. The result in the medium term was also the approval of the law that limited the work of agencies such as the FBI or the DEA in the country.
Thus, it is difficult to say what kind of collaboration has been established in the case of the four citizens kidnapped on Friday. EL PAÍS has contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in charge of registering and controlling foreign agents in the country, to find out if FBI officials or another agency have crossed into Matamoros to help in the investigations. So far, there has been no response.