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4 U.S. citizens believed kidnapped in Mexico were there for health care, say officials

The four, traveling in a van with South Carolina license plates, entered Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, on Friday.

MATAMOROS, Tamaulipas — Four Americans who traveled to Mexico last week to seek health care got caught in a deadly drug-related shootout and were kidnapped by heavily armed men who threw them in the back of a pickup truck, officials from both countries said Monday. 

The four entered Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, on Friday. They were traveling in a white minivan with South Carolina license plates, according to officials. 

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Monday that the four Americans were going to buy medicine and ended up in the crossfire between two armed groups, without offering details.

"These are people from the United States, and the information we have is that they crossed the border to buy medicine in Mexico and there was a confrontation between groups, and they were detained," López Obrador said.

A video posted to social media Friday shows armed men, some wearing tan body armor, who load four people into the bed of a pickup truck in broad daylight. One was alive and sitting up, but the others appeared to be either dead or wounded.

That matches the account of what the FBI said happened.

The FBI San Antonio Division office said the vehicle came under fire shortly after it entered Mexico.

“All four Americans were placed in a vehicle and taken from the scene by armed men,” the office said. The FBI is offering a $50,000 reward for the return of the victims and the arrest of the culprits.

Matamoros is home to warring factions of the Gulf drug cartel and the shootouts in Matamoros were so bad that the U.S. Consulate issued an alert about the danger and local authorities warned people to shelter in place Friday.

Tamaulipas state police said at least one Mexican woman was killed Friday. The state police said neither police nor the military was involved in Friday's shootouts.

“There have been two armed incidents between unidentified civilians,” the state police said Friday on social media. “The exact number of the fallen is being corroborated.”

The issue of cartel violence continues to be a hot topic, especially in Texas.

In fact, on Friday, the same day as this kidnapping, Republican Sen. John Cornyn was with lawmakers speaking about Mexico’s fight with the cartels. They visited several towns in the Rio Grande Valley, including Brownsville.

Victims of violence in Matamoros and other large border cities of Tamaulipas often go uncounted, because the cartels have a history of taking bodies of their own with them. Local media often avoid reporting on such incidents out of safety concerns, creating an information vacuum.

Videos posted to social media Friday showed armed men loading two bodies into a truck in broad daylight.

The U.S. State Department’s travel warning for Tamaulipas state warns U.S. citizens not to travel there. However, being a border city, U.S. citizens who live in Brownsville or elsewhere in Texas frequently cross to visit family, attend medical appointments or shop. It would also be a crossing point for people traveling deeper into Mexico.

For years, a night out in Matamoros was also part of the “two-nation vacation” for spring breakers flocking to Texas’ South Padre Island. But increased violence there over the past 10 to 15 years frightened away much of that business.

The FBI said the van the victims were driving Friday carried North Carolina license plates, but authorities provided no other details about who they were or where they were from.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story said the license plates were from North Carolina.

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