Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s like the opening scene of a bad action movie – or, for the people involved, a horror story: On Friday, four Americans were kidnapped by armed men, likely members of a cartel, in northeastern Mexico. It was apparently a case of mistaken identity, with the kidnappers believing that the Americans were Haitian drug smugglers.
The four Americans, identified as Latavia “Tay” Washington McGee, Zindell Brown, Shaeed Woodard and a man called Eric were reportedly in the border town of Matamoros, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico for a medical procedure for McGee. According to the FBI, the gunmen fired at them, and then the Americans were “placed in a vehicle and taken from the scene by armed men,” the FBI said.
Authorities say that two of the victims have been found dead, and two survivors – one severely injured – have been located at what appears to be a medical clinic in the border city of Matamoros, US officials told CNN.
So much about this story has yet to be known, but the State Department has a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” warning out for Tamaulipas, “due to crime and kidnapping.” That said, Matamoros is just across the border from the Rio Grande valley in the US; nearly five million people cross the bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas every year.
The tragic fates of these victims also spotlights the reality that hundreds of thousands of Americans travel abroad every year for medical care, many of them to Mexico, for everything from root canals to in vitro fertilization to cosmetic procedures, which are often cheaper south of the border. And the broad criminalization of abortion across the American south has also sent women over the border to Mexico seeking safe abortion care.
The existence of “medical tourism” says something quite damning about the cost and limitations of American healthcare.
It’s also not clear how many Americans actually read, let alone heed, the State Department’s travel warnings – especially to a neighboring country that is also a popular tourist destination. It’s easy to blame the victim here. But the four Americans who were kidnapped were doing what a great many other US citizens do every day without incident.
What they were doing, though – moving through an area dominated by cartels and awash in the violence those cartels cause – is something that often costs innocent Mexicans their lives. And indeed, one innocent Mexican bystander was killed in the shootout that accompanied this awful kidnapping.
Tamaulipas has an astoundingly high murder rate, and even that is likely underreported. The cartels have a habit of disappearing people so that they go uncounted, and murdering any journalists or law enforcement who might want to so much as get a body count. Corruption is rife, and reining in the cartels has proven to be nearly impossible. In Tamaulipas alone, there are thousands of Mexicans who are simply missing.
The Americans who travel to Mexican beaches for spring break or to enjoy the culinary and cultural delights of Mexico City, Oaxaca, and so many other corners of an extraordinary country, typically have the privilege of leaving – and despite this truly awful and tragic kidnapping, most Americans do leave Mexico unharmed. That privilege is not on offer for the millions of people across Mexico and several similarly dangerous nations in Central America who don’t hold a US passport.
For many of those people – who, like you and I and the families of the four kidnapped Americans only want to keep themselves and their loved ones safe – Matamoros has been a prison, a place where asylum-seekers have been kept just over the river from the United States, and where they have faced pervasive violence: Kidnappings, extortion, murder.
At the same time as Americans have turned our eyes toward our fellow citizens and their ordeal, President Joe Biden is said to be considering a return to the Trump administration’s draconian anti-immigrant policies, which would allow for the detention of migrants who entered the US without proper documentation, followed by their swift expulsion.
Another Biden proposal would make it nearly impossible for the vast majority of asylum-seekers to qualify for safe harbor in the United States. Meanwhile, the same cartels terrorizing their fellow citizens are enriching themselves through drug production and smuggling, making money off of – and fueling – the crisis of addiction in the United States. They maintain their power through violence enabled by America, arming themselves to the teeth with guns procured thanks to America’s lax gun laws: a great many guns used in Mexican crimes came from the United States, and Mexico’s own government blames American gun laws (or lack thereof) for the half million guns it says come into Mexico from the US every year.
Now, even though the substance abuse epidemic is devastating lives on both sides of the border, a number of Republicans have used the specter of illegal drugs and endemic violence to hammer Biden and try to keep migrants out. The result is millions of innocent people trapped: on one side are the violent cartels at home who are partly funded by American drug dollars and partly armed with American guns; on the other is an America that slams its doors to the innocent Mexicans, Salvadorans, Hondurans and others who want to escape those very cartels.
Let’s be clear: Many of these migrants, including those with children, are fleeing the same violence that has now swept up for innocent Americans. Many of these migrants, including children, will be returned to the conditions that have now left two Americans dead. And it is Mexicans who bear the brunt of Mexican cartel violence; in El Salvador, it’s Salvadorans, in Honduras, Hondurans, and so on. Americans who visit are overwhelmingly spared.
It is crucial that these innocent Americans get justice. But their lives are not more inherently valuable because of their passports. They, along with the millions of people whose homes have turned hellish, and who show up at America’s borders looking for the same kind of safety we wish for our fellow citizens, deserved better. Their tragic fate must be a reminder that all people deserve to live and raise their kids free from violence.