LAKE CITY, S.C. — It was supposed to be a fun road trip to Mexico, a post-pandemic adventure for a group of childhood friends.
One was treating herself to cosmetic surgery after having six children. It was a 34th birthday celebration for another.
They rented a white van in South Carolina and set out on the nearly 22-hour trip, shooting silly videos and driving straight through to Brownsville, on the tip of Texas.
“Good morning, America!” Eric Williams said into the camera in the early morning hours after the all-night drive. “Mexico, here we come.”
But once they got to Mexico, the trip took a terrible turn. Two members of the group would never make it home, victims of the ruthless Gulf cartel, a drug gang tied to brutal killings and kidnappings in the violent border city of Matamoros, a city of a half-million people that has long been a stronghold of the powerful cartel.
There could hardly be a worse border town to pick for a fun adventure.
It all started when Latavia McGee booked cosmetic surgery with a doctor she'd been to before, in 2021. Dr. Roberto Chavez Medina's advertisements on Facebook and TikTok have a strong following among American women.
It's a common story — people often leave the U.S. for all sorts of medical treatment; costs in Mexico can be less than half what someone would pay in the United States.
McGee's appointment was within days of her cousin Shaeed Woodard's 34th birthday. Friends Zindell Brown and Cheryl Orange rounded out the group of five, most of whom had grown up together in Lake City, South Carolina, a town of fewer than 6,000 people.
Once they got to the border, they rented rooms at a Motel 6 off the highway in Brownsville, a lush town with a high poverty rate on the Rio Grande where parrots squawk from palm trees.
The friends set out early Friday to cross an international bridge that spans the two countries, thinking they were headed to see the doctor right on the other side. Orange stayed at the motel in Brownsville because she forgot to bring her ID to cross the border.
“They went to drop her off and was supposed to be back within 15 minutes,” Orange said.
But the clinic had moved to a new location several blocks away.
It's not clear what happened next: perhaps the group got lost. The Mexican state of Tamaulipas is the subject of a U.S. State Department warning to avoid travel because of violent crime and kidnappings, but the friends may not have known — Williams’ mother said she didn’t think her son had ever been out of the U.S.
Hours passed, and on the U.S. side of the border, Orange contacted the Brownsville police, concerned something bad had happened.
Her worst fears would come to pass.
Just a few miles across the border, around midday, a vehicle crashed into the group's van. Several men with tactical vests and assault rifles arrived in another vehicle and surrounded them, according to Mexican police reports. Shots rang out.
Brown and Woodard were hit by bullets and appeared to have died immediately. Williams was shot in the leg.
Video on social media showed men forcing McGee into the bed of a pickup truck, then going back to drag a wounded Williams and the bodies of their two friends across the road and into the truck as onlookers in traffic sat in their cars eerily silent. One witness said no one wanted to draw the gunmen's attention.
The truck barreled off. A Mexican woman who had been hit by a stray bullet, 33-year-old Areli Pablo Servando, was left to die on the street.
When Mexican authorities arrived on the scene, they found Social Security cards and credit cards belonging to the group of friends inside the van, marked by a bullet hole in the driver’s side window. The U.S. consulate, only blocks away, issued an alert, warning its employees to avoid the area until further notice because of a deadly shooting downtown.
The doctor at the clinic later told investigators he thought it was strange his patient hadn't shown up for the procedure, which can run up to $3,000, but his office had only communicated with her electronically. The clinic was about a four-minute drive from where their van had crashed.
The crash would be the start of some of the most terrifying days of the surviving friends' lives.
The cartel members drove them from place to place around the city in a harrowing ride, stopping shortly after the shooting at a medical clinic.
A doctor told investigators that two men with assault rifles burst in through a back door and threatened to kill staff if they didn’t treat a wounded person with them. The gunmen and their hostages stayed three hours at the clinic and then left, according to Mexican investigative documents viewed by The Associated Press.
Orange was worried, stuck on the other side of the border at Motel 6 with no clue what had happened. On Saturday morning, she spoke to a Brownsville officer at the motel. Within an hour, a detective was assigned to the case, and shortly after that Brownsville police handed it off to the FBI.
On Sunday, the FBI reported their disappearances and offered a $50,000 reward for their return and the arrest of the kidnappers, and U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar said U.S. officials contacted President Andrés Manuel López Obrador directly to ask for help in locating the missing Americans.
Back home, their family and friends in the United States watched the video of their capture in horror and prayed. The wait, the silence, became unbearable.
"I just want them to come home,” Zalandria Brown, Zindell Brown’s older sister, said Monday night. “Dead or alive, just bring them home.”
Jerry Wallace, Williams’ cousin, couldn't eat or sleep.
“It’s really something just trying to just wait and hear what’s going on and not hearing nothing,” Wallace said.
The next day, the agony of not knowing ended, but with the news came more heartache.
An anonymous tipster reported sighting armed men and people in blindfolds at a shabby, orange shack with blue trim and a corrugated metal roof in a tiny rural community known as Ejido Tecolote, on the outskirts of Matamoros. A white pickup parked outside matched the one the Americans had been loaded into March 3, according to the Mexican investigative documents.
The shack was near Playa Bagdad — or “Bagdad Beach,” a remote strip of sand where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico that has been known as a drop-off point for U.S.-bound smuggled goods since the U.S. Civil War.
Mexican authorities, following the lead, drove the dirt roads searching. Then they heard shouts and the word: “Help!” That led them to the shack, where they found McGee and Williams blindfolded inside. They were being held next to the of bodies their friends, who had been wrapped in blankets and plastic bags, according to the Mexican investigative documents.
A 24-year-old man in a tactical vest who was guarding them darted out the back door, only to be quickly apprehended.
The two Americans were rushed to a Brownsville hospital.
Robert Williams, Eric's brother, said he couldn’t wait to tell him “how glad I am that he made it through and that I love him.” His 11-year-old son was overjoyed.
On Thursday, as two of the friends' bodies were returned to the U.S. in hearses, calls grew for action to be taken to crush the Gulf cartel. The cartel's Scorpions faction apologized in a letter and announced it had handed over five members who were responsible for the abductions of innocent Americans. The letter was obtained by the AP through a Tamaulipas state law enforcement official.
Woodard’s father said he was speechless.
“I’ve just been trying to make sense out of it for a whole week. Just restless, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. It’s just crazy to see your own child taken from you in such a way, in a violent way like that," James Woodard told reporters. “He didn’t deserve it.”
Orange was speechless too. She said Friday in a voice text to an AP reporter that she and her friends who survived the attack are not ready to talk about their ill-fated trip.
“We just want to begin to recover,” she said.
Watson reported from San Diego and Peña reported from Ciudad Victoria. Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.