The FBI is offering a $50,000 reward for the return of four Americans thought to have been kidnapped at gunpoint during an attack in Mexico on Friday that also led to the death of a Mexican citizen, authorities said.
A senior U.S. official said Monday that the Americans did not cross the border for any criminal purpose.
The kidnapping is likely a case of mistaken identity, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the matter.
The four Americans drove into Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in a white minivan with North Carolina plates on Friday, the FBI said in a statement. Matamoros is just south of Brownsville, Texas.
Shortly after crossing into Mexico, the Americans were met with gunfire by unidentified shooters, the release said.
A law enforcement source with knowledge of the matter said that part of the kidnapping was captured on video that showed a gunman dragging people into a white pickup.
The gunmen “herded the four U.S. citizens into another vehicle and fled the scene with them,” the FBI said.
U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said Monday in a statement that an “innocent Mexican citizen was tragically killed” during the kidnapping.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the Americans were in the country to buy medicine.
“They are people from the United States who crossed the border to buy medicines and there was a confrontation between groups. The matter is looked into. I think it will be resolved,” López Obrador said Monday during a daily news conference.
It is not uncommon for Americans to cross the southern border for cheaper medication in Mexico.
The senior U.S. official did not endorse the comments of Mexico’s president that the Americans entered his country to buy medicine.
A spokesperson with the National Security Council said in a statement Monday the kidnappings were “unacceptable.”
“Our thoughts are with the families of these individuals and we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular assistance,” the statement said.
“U.S. law enforcement is in touch with Mexican law enforcement. The Departments of State and Homeland Security are also coordinating with Mexican authorities. We’ll continue to coordinate with Mexico to bring those responsible to justice.”
The case is under investigation by the FBI and Mexican law enforcement, and the FBI is asking the public for information leading to arrests.
Officials did not provide any further details on the abduction and did not identify the victims.
The reward money is for the safe return of the victims as well as the arrest of those involved in the assault and kidnapping.
Anyone with information is urged to call the FBI’s San Antonio division at 210-225-6741.
The U.S. State Department has a “Do Not Travel” warning for Tamaulipas state because of “crime and kidnapping.”
The department said organized crime activity including gunbattles, armed robbery and kidnappings are 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,” the warning said.
Like other border cities, it sees vehicle and pedestrian traffic crossing both ways daily, although events such as the pandemic, increased violence and inspections can alter the flow. But communities including Brownsville and Matamoros often have a symbiotic relationship with people on both sides of the border.
Some American and international companies operate factories in Matamoros that bring U.S. materials and people to Mexico and export products back to the U.S. or other countries.
People in these factories, referred to as maquiladoras, may live in the U.S., if they have permission, and work in Mexico.
People in the U.S. that live on the border find less expensive dental or medical care or pharmaceuticals in Mexico. People in Mexico may make a day trip to a department or retail store they prefer in the U.S.
People from Mexico who are deemed eligible can qualify for border crossing passes that limit their travel for a short period or can get longer travel visas, which require going through an application process with an American embassy or consulate.
Matamoros is home to warring factions of the Gulf drug cartel, as leadership changes have led to bloody infighting. Amid the violence, thousands of Mexicans have disappeared.
Shootouts there on Friday were so bad that the U.S. Consulate issued an alert about the danger, and local authorities warned people to shelter in place. It was not immediately clear if the abductions could have been connected to that violence.
Tamaulipas state police said people had been killed and injured Friday, but not how many. The state police said on social media that neither law enforcement nor the military were involved in “two armed incidents between unidentified civilians.”
Victims of violence in Matamoros and other large border cities of Tamaulipas often go uncounted, because the cartels have a history of taking bodies with them. Local media often avoid reporting on such incidents out of safety concerns, creating an information vacuum.
Tamaulipas state’s many border crossings with Texas make it lucrative for the cartels that move drugs, migrants and guns between Mexico and the U.S.
In 2021, Causa en Común, a nongovernmental group in Mexico chronicled extreme violence that left an estimated 6,314 people injured or dead in the first seven months of that year.
The group said there were at least 800 cases of torture in 2021, in addition to 640 incidents of dismemberment, mutilations and destruction of corpses, the discoveries of 502 clandestine graves, 418 massacres and 341 murders of women that were perpetrated with extreme cruelty.