Mexico blackouts, injuries and deaths at resorts spark investigation of State Department

Readers come to TripAdvisor to write review and read reviews of other travelers to help them, and others, plan trips. But it's more likely that what's posted is only half the story. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

MILWAUKEE - The U.S. Office of Inspector General has opened an inquiry into how the State Department has been handling injuries and deathsrelated to potentially tainted alcohol in Mexico.

In a letter to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Inspector General Steve Linick said his office will examine the policies and procedures the department has been using in responding to these cases.

“Once we have assessed that information we will determine whether additional work is warranted,” Linick wrote in the letter dated Tuesday.

Johnson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, called on the Inspector General to investigate in October, after dozens of people told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they had been robbed, sexually assaulted and otherwise injured after consuming alcohol while vacationing at all-inclusive resorts around Mexico. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, like USA TODAY, is a part of the USA TODAY Network.

Some reported having just one or two drinks before blacking out and being victimized. Numerous people reported blacking out simultaneously with a friend or spouse.

Family members also told of how loved ones drowned in resort pools.  

“That’s wonderful, that’s great,” Ginny McGowan said of the action by the Inspector General. “It’s better than what we’ve been hearing and getting in terms of denial and nobody taking responsibility.”

McGowan is the mother of Abbey Conner, the 20-year-old from Pewaukee, Wis., who drowned at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar pool while on a family vacation in January.

Conner and her older brother, Austin, had been drinking tequila at the resort’s swim-up bar for less than two hours before dinner with their mother and stepfather on the first night of their trip. They were found unconscious in the pool around 7 p.m. 

Austin survived but suffered a severe concussion and doesn’t recall what happened. Conner was brain dead and flown to Florida a few days later where she was taken off life support. She had suffered a broken collar bone.

Conner’s family received little to no help in getting answers to what happened. The resort would not allow guests or bartenders to be interviewed and would not provide surveillance video. 

Police were reluctant to investigate, labeling Conner's death an “accidental drowning.”

And the State Department said there was little it could do to help. The agency has no investigative authority in Mexico, can’t offer legal advice or even translate the language for U.S. citizens abroad.

The department keeps sparse data on deaths of Americans, and relies on Mexican authorities for the information. And it has not been tracking injuries, the Journal Sentinel found, so it is impossible for travelers to spot potential problems.

Indeed, when it issued a tally this summer disclosing that 16 Americans had drowned in Mexico in the first half of 2017, the department did not include Conner’s death in the count. She was pulled lifeless from the pool, but later removed from life support in Florida.

The State Department alerted travelers to problems with alcohol at Mexican resorts in July after the Journal Sentinel investigation, but buried the information under a health and safety tab on the country-specific page on the agency’s website.

In August, the department updated its travel warnings — as it routinely does every six months — and noted an uptick in homicides and other drug-related violence around Cancun and other tourist regions. It did not spell out alcohol-related risks at resorts or the lack of recourse for tourists when they are are victims of crimes.

A longstanding problem

The Mexican government has long acknowledged it has significant problems with illegal alcohol but denies a widespread issue with it being tainted. A 2017 report by government officials and industry representatives found as much as 36% of the alcohol consumed in the country is illicit, meaning it’s produced under unregulated conditions.  

The government has a public service promotion that encourages bars and restaurants to destroy liquor bottles once they're empty so they can’t be refilled with bootleg booze

The Journal Sentinel launched its investigation into alcohol-related blackouts in Mexico in the wake of Conner's death. Since the initial report, more than 100 people have reported serious problems while vacationing in Mexico. And dozens have said when they tried to caution others on one of the world’s most popular websites, TripAdvisor, their warnings were deleted. 

Journal Sentinel report last month described how a warning from a Dallas woman who had been raped at a resort was taken down by TripAdvisor. At least two other women were sexually assaulted at the same resort complex in the years that followed.

TripAdvisor apologized to the Dallas woman for deleting her post, which they said was initially removed because it didn’t meet the site’s “family friendly” guidelines. A spokesman said the site’s policy had “evolved” in the intervening years.

In response, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said it was looking into TripAdvisor’s business practices.

Johnson, a Republican, is one of a handful of U.S. senators who have pressed for the State Department to do more to get a grasp on what is happening to Americans in Mexico. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, have said the department has been underplaying the risk to tourists.

Baldwin blasted the State Department, calling its response “inadequate” and “disingenuous.” 

After the department reiterated the Mexican government’s stance that it sampled alcohol from Iberostar in August and didn’t find it to be “tainted,” Baldwin wrote that since Conner died in January, and the alcohol served at the time was never tested, it was “disingenuous at best to portray August 2017 inspection results as evidence that Mexico does not have a problem with unregulated alcohol.”

Bill Conner, Abbey’s father, who was not in Mexico when Abbey drowned, said he is cautiously pleased to learn of the Inspector General’s inquiry.

“We have got to start somewhere,” he said. “I have the feeling somebody wants to make a difference, but I’ll wait and see what they come back with. If it’s all the same stuff we already know, I’ll be disappointed at minimum.”

Follow Raquel Rutledge on Twitter: @RaquelRutledge

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2018. All Rights Reserved


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