Latavia “Tay” Washington McGee had scheduled an abdominal operation that many mothers have, and she chose to have the operation done in Mexico, where medical costs are cheaper – and where she had previously gone for other cosmetic procedures.
A cousin and a couple of friends joined her to share the 1,400-mile drive from her home town of Lake City, South Carolina, to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, just south of the US-Mexico frontier.
They arrived in the border city on 3 March, but never made it to the clinic. Members of a violent drug cartel that controls the area mistook the group of Americans as rival traffickers, killed two of them, and kidnapped McGee and one of her friends.
McGee and Eric Williams were rescued within days, and the bodies of her cousin Shaeed Woodard and friend Zindell Brown were later repatriated. On Thursday, five men who allegedly carried out the attack were dumped on a Matamoros street, along with a a surreal letter of apology purportedly from the Gulf cartel.
“We ask the public to be calm,” the letter said in Spanish. “We are committed that the mistakes caused by indiscipline won’t be repeated, and that those responsible pay, no matter who they are.”
The episode prompted calls from prominent conservative American politicians legislation to allow the US military to intervene in Mexico – though the traffickers often arm themselves with guns bought in the US.
It had left many Mexicans puzzled at why this particular case was apparently resolved so quickly in a country where more than 100,000 people are missing and most crimes go unpunished.
And it cast international attention on US medical tourism, in which Americans travel abroad for healthcare they can’t afford at home.
The tummy-tuck surgery sought by McGee generally aims to remove excess skin from the abdomen and tighten the muscles in that part of the body. It is the fourth-most common cosmetic procedure, according to a 2022 report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
It is particularly popular as part of the beauty regimens for Black Americans, mothers and people in their 30s, the society said. All those descriptors match McGee, 33, the mother of six children between the ages of six and 18.But in the US, the procedure alone typically costs more than $6,100. Adding in anesthesia, medication and the operating room, the total cost for a tummy tuck – which is considered major surgery – can balloon to around $20,000.
That’s the point where many Americans start exploring traveling abroad. The CDC warns against such medical tourism, saying infection and post-procedure complications are possible depending on the destination and facility.
Dr Michael Omidi, a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles, told the Guardian that US providers usually won’t work with patients who travelled abroad to be operated on and then suffered complications – for fear of becoming liable for the entire procedure.
Yet the fact is other countries can offer substantial savings to US patients willing to assume the risks.
In early 2020, Americans could on average save 40% to 60% by having major surgery done in Mexico, according to a report from the consumer watchdog Patients Beyond Borders. Those figures have only increased amid US inflation and spiralling insurance companies’ deductibles, co-pays and exclusions, said the group’s chief executive officer, Josef Woodman.
Potential clients can minimize the risks by seeking out certified providers in certain resort areas, larger border cities like Tijuana, and the country’s capital, Mexico City, Woodman said.
Woodman said that though it was not possible to identify every Mexican community with providers capable of consistently providing a good outcome, his group does know of several.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “Matamoros isn’t among them.”
Furthermore, the US state department had admonished Americans against traveling there, citing the organized crime and violence in the region.
Riding in a white minivan, McGee, Williams, Woodard and Brown – described by loved ones as fiercely close to each other – crossed into Matamoros from Brownsville, Texas, during the day on 3 March.
As the four friends drove through the city, looking for the clinic, their white minivan suddenly came under gunfire from heavily armed men in body armor, who pursued them in a pickup truck.
Woodard and Brown were killed, as was Arely Servando, a 33-year-old Mexican church worker standing on the street a block and a half away.
Williams was shot in the legs but survived. McGee was physically unharmed, but – along with her companions – was dragged into the back of the attackers’ truck at gunpoint.
For four days, the group’s fate was unknown. US federal agents offered a reward of $50,000, and then on Tuesday, Mexican authorities announced they had found McGee and Williams – plus the bodies of Woodard and Brown – in a wooden shack in a rural area 15 miles east of Matamoros.
Police arrested a man guarding the Americans, who investigators suspect were mistaken for rival traffickers. On Thursday, the five men apparently dumped on a Matamoros street by the Gulf cartel itself were arrested on charges of aggravated kidnapping and homicide.
In South Carolina, McGee’s mother, Barbara Burgess, told ABC News that her daughter’s rescue was evidence for her that “there is a God”. But, Burgess added, her daughter was devastated at seeing two of the people she loved as they “died in front of her”.
Williams’s wife Michelle, said she had no idea her husband was going to Mexico, but told the South Carolina news outlet WBTW she had an overwhelming “sense of relief” that he was expected to make a full recovery after undergoing surgery for the bullet wounds to his legs.
But she added: “My heart is breaking for the other two families that don’t get to say the same.”
Brown’s sister, Zalandria, told the Associated Press that her brother had only joined his friends reluctantly after repeatedly warning them against the trip.
“Zindell [was] like my shadow,” she told CNN. “He [was] like my son … my hipbone.”
Separately, according to CNN, Woodard’s father told reporters his son would’ve turned 34 on Thursday. “I’ve tried to make sense out of it and tried to be strong about it,” he said. “It just was a senseless crime.”
The South Carolina senator Republican Lindsey Graham called for legislation to classify Mexican drug cartels as terrorists, and threatened to “unleash the fury and the might of the United States.”
He made no mention that much of the violence in Mexico – which has stringent gun restrictions – is fuelled by drug sales within the United States and perpetrated with guns bought legally in the US before being smuggled across the border. Graham has repeatedly voted against substantial gun control measures in the US.
Such double standards only fuel a weary sense of outrage among Mexicans distraught at the violence and impunity dogging their country.
Thousands of Mexicans are kidnapped in their country annually, and authorities rarely try to rescue them or arrest those responsible. Some are eventually returned after payment of a ransom; many simply disappear without trace.
In this case, a taskforce involving the Mexican military, national guard and state police swung into action.
A video on Twitter posted by the Tamaulipas businessman Roberto Lee captured the reaction of many south of the border.
“It makes us feel like we need to be citizens of another country for our government to care about us,” said Lee. “We learned one thing – that the government can produce results, but it’s not producing them for Matamoros.”
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