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2 surviving Americans who were kidnapped in Mexico are back in the U.S.

A member of the Mexican security forces stands next to a white minivan with North Carolina plates and several bullet holes at the scene of the crime in Matamoros on Friday.
STR
/
AP
A member of the Mexican security forces stands next to a white minivan with North Carolina plates and several bullet holes at the scene of the crime in Matamoros on Friday.

Updated March 7, 2023 at 9:53 PM ET

Two of the four Americans who were held captive and survived a kidnapping in Mexico last week were taken back into the U.S. shortly before noon on Tuesday amid a heavily armed convoy of Mexican military Humvees and National Guard trucks with mounted machine guns.

The State Department said on Tuesday that the surviving victims were both repatriated with the assistance of the Mexican government. The department didn't name them, but the mother of LaTavia Washington McGee confirmed she is at a Texas hospital and the brother of Eric Williams told NPR he is recovering from a gunshot wound to the leg in the U.S.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said officials are "in the process of repatriating the remains" of the other two kidnapping victims, who were found dead in the border state of Tamaulipas, where the group was ambushed at gunpoint on Friday.

During a press briefing in Mexico on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Américo Villarreal said the bodies would be released to U.S. officials once autopsies had been completed.

Villarreal also confirmed that a 24-year-old suspect is in police custody.

"We're providing all appropriate assistance to them and their families. We extend our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the deceased," Price said.

He added: "We thank our Mexican and U.S. law enforcement partners for their efforts to find these innocent victims and the task forward is to ensure that justice is done."

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Tuesday morning vowed to seek justice for the victims.

"Those responsible will be found and they are going to be punished," López Obrador said.

U.S. officials will continue to collaborate with Mexican law enforcement

U.S. officials largely declined to confirm or elaborate on the news out of Mexico on Tuesday, but said they will share more definitive information when they have it.

"During this difficult time, I want to offer my deepest sympathies to the families of the Americans who were attacked and kidnapped," said Attorney General Merrick Garland, speaking to reporters at the Justice Department.

John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, credited the Justice Department, FBI and Department of Homeland Security for their "swift response to this dreadful incident and for their continued collaboration with Mexican authorities."

"Attacks on U.S. citizens are unacceptable no matter where or under what circumstances they occur," he added. "And we're going to work closely with the Mexican government to ensure that justice is done in this case."

Meanwhile Mexican authorities have been much more forthcoming with information about the investigation and about the ordeal the victims endured while they were held captive.

What we know so far

The group, who are all native of Lake City, S.C., according to the city's mayor, had crossed over into the border city of Matamoros from Brownsville, Texas, in a white minivan with North Carolina plates.

Tamaulipas Attorney General Irving Barrios Mojica told reporters that the Americans entered the city at 9:18 a.m. Friday.

Family and friends have reported that the four had gone on the road trip so that at least one of them could get a tummy tuck in Matamoros. But after just two hours in the city, they got caught up in deadly gunfire.

Barrios Mojica said the shooters descended on the minivan at about 11:45 a.m. At least one Mexican national was killed in the violent attack. The FBI said the gunmen moved all four into another vehicle and fled the scene.

Over the next few days, the kidnappers moved the group to several different locations, including a clinic, "in an effort to create confusion and foil the rescue efforts," Villarreal said.

On Tuesday, the Tamaulipas attorney general said Mexican law enforcement is pursuing all lines of investigation but that it appears that Americans were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"The theory that it was confusion and not an direct aggression is the most viable theory, likely the most correct theory," Barrios Mojica said.

The kidnapping sparked a frantic search by law enforcement agencies in both countries, with the FBI offering a $50,000 reward for the victims' return and the arrest of those involved.

LaTavia Washington McGee's mother, Barbara Burgess, told ABC 15 that her daughter has been traumatized by the horrific ordeal.

"She was crying," Burgess said of her daughter, who is in a Texas hospital.

"I asked her how she was doing. She doing OK. She was crying because her brother got killed and she watched him die. She watched two of them die. They died in front of her," Burgess said.

Zalandria Brown told The Associated Press that her brother, Zindell, had gone along on the trip to accompany his friend who was getting the tummy tuck.

"This is like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from," she said. "To see a member of your family thrown in the back of a truck and dragged, it is just unbelievable."

Robert Williams, the brother of Eric Williams, told NPR he can't imagine his younger brother enduring such a harrowing experience.

"He is a fun-loving guy. He's a rapper, a songwriter and a poet," Williams said. "If you know him ... he's the life of the party."

He added that he just wants to "tell him I love him."

Mexican officials now say the group was caught in the crossfire of rival cartel groups, the AP reports.

Many parts of Mexico have been terrorized by fights between feuding drug cartels for years, and the state of Tamaulipas in particular is considered one of the country's most violent areas.

The U.S. State Department advises Americans not to travel to the state due to crime and kidnapping, noting that criminal groups there are prone to targeting public and private passenger vehicles, "often taking passengers and demanding ransom payments."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.