Threat of Violence Doesn't Stop North Texans From Traveling to Mexico for Medical Care

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Days after two people died and two people were injured during a cosmetic surgery road trip to Matamoros, Mexico, North Texans say the threat of violence won't stop them from crossing the border for medical care.

A relative said Monday that the group had traveled together from South Carolina so one of them could get a tummy tuck from a doctor in the border city of Matamoros when they got caught in a deadly shootout between drug cartel factions and were kidnapped.

The country has long been a popular destination for dental procedures, cancer treatments, prescription drugs and plastic surgery.

The city of Matamoros and the state of Tamaulipas have been placed under a Level Four '"do not travel" advisory by the U.S. State Department.

At Couture Lounge by Vee, owner Virginia Gutierrez says the tragedy in Matamoros has been top of mind.

"Yes, because it doesn't make sense to me like how did that even happen," said Gutierrez. "It's pretty crazy I'm trying to see what the story is only because I also went to Mexico to get my body done as well."

Gutierrez says she never felt unsafe on her two trips to Tijuana thanks in part to shuttle service to and from San Diego.

"I think that's a priority for them especially when you're traveling from outside the country and you're going with a clinic," said Gutierrez.

Gutierrez is one of the hundreds of thousands of medical tourists lured across the border for low-cost medical care from dental to weight loss surgery and prescription drugs.

Without health insurance, Diane Orban of Whitney, Texas, also opted to go to Tijuana for gastric sleeve surgery. "You're treated like the queen like you're the only person there it's amazing," she said.

Orban shopped around before deciding to go to Mexico for surgery.

"The least expensive route I found was about $11,000. Tijuana was $5,800."

Orban says she went alone, and never had any apprehension.

"The tourists are their source of income and they are on their game it was never an unsafe feeling when I was there," said Orban.

As authorities work to find all of the gunmen and kidnappers, family members of the surviving victims, Latavia McGee and Eric Williams, are speaking about the traumatic ordeal.

Robert Williams is Eric Williams’s brother. Watching his brother cross the border back into the United States was surreal.

"I was overwhelmed with emotion. I was very happy to find out he was okay. I was totally relieved," said Williams.

Tarleton University criminologist Alex del Carmen says the violent kidnapping last week should serve as a reminder of the potential dangers Americans face.

"As soon as they cross the border they're being spotted by people on the border as being Americans coming into the Mexican territory and when they see Americans they see dollars," he said.

Del Carmen says anyone considering medical tourism to Mexico should take steps to insure their safety.

"Make sure your cell works when you cross the border to make sure your loved ones know exactly where you are going," del Carmen said. "Once you are abducted, once you're inside that vehicle, the chances of survivability diminish tremendously."

Gutierrez and Orban urge anyone considering crossing the border for medical reasons to choose their destination carefully.

"Research who you're going with," said Gutierrez. Both were bussed to and from San Diego and never encountered a single problem.

They also caution not to take chances. "If you know that you're going to an area that's known not to be safe - don't go," said Orban.

The State Department offers the following tips to anyone who decided to travel to high-risk areas:

  • Enroll in the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
  • Draft a will and designate beneficiaries and power of attorney.
  • Discuss your plan with loved ones and manage your affairs before you travel.
  • Learn how to use your phone to share your location with friends and family while abroad.
  • Develop a communication plan with friends, family and your employer so they can monitor your safety and location.
  • Know about the U.S. Embassy or Consulate, FBI and State Department's Office of American Citizen Services.
  • Appoint a family member to serve as the point of contact with hostage-takers, the media, U.S. and Mexican agencies as well as Members of Congress if you are taken or detained.
  • Establish proof of life protocols with loved ones.
  • Leave DNA samples with your medical provider and make sure your family can access them.

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