A year after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel brought to light a suspicious drowning and other troubling accounts from tourists vacationing at upscale all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, the stories continue to surface.
In one recent case, a 51-year-old mother and her two adult daughters blacked out simultaneously after drinking a shot of tequila. In another, a couple in their mid-60s vomited and blacked out after two margaritas. And in yet another, a woman from Los Angeles — who had not been drinking — was taken to jail for trying to help a woman who was blacking out in the pool.
Since early July of 2017, the Journal Sentinel has heard from more than 170 travelers describing injuries, illnesses and deaths after drinking alcohol at resorts and in tourist towns in Mexico.
Travelers have reported blacking out after drinking small and moderate amounts of alcohol — in some cases, one drink — and regaining consciousness to find they were robbed, assaulted, hospitalized and taken to jail.
Many reported encountering unhelpful or hostile resort workers, hospital staffers and police officers. And many said the U.S. Department of State offered little to no help. Travelers found that U.S. officials in counselor offices in Mexico were slow to respond, were not allowed to help investigate crimes, offer legal advice or even translate the language for them, the Journal Sentinel investigation uncovered.
And when tourists tried to warn others about what happened using the popular website, TripAdvisor, the Journal Sentinel found TripAdvisor had deleted dozens of their posts. TripAdvisor later apologized, promised to better train the company’s moderators and took other steps. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission said in February it was looking into TripAdvisor’s business practices.
The Journal Sentinel's investigation also exposed how travel agencies failed to warn tourists about troubles in Mexico when they booked their trips.
The State Department’s Office of Inspector General is investigating how agents in counselor offices in Mexico handled the cases. Investigators expect to release a report in coming months. Following publication of the Journal Sentinel stories, the State Department began tracking alcohol-related incidents in Mexico. As of June, the department said it had received 22 reports.
The majority of the resorts reached by the Journal Sentinel said they were aware of the incidents, investigated them but could find no evidence of tainted alcohol or foul play. The Mexican government, however, in February shut down two black market tequila distilleries and confiscated nearly 20,000 gallons of illegal tequila.
INTERACTIVE: The Victims
Tests found more than 235 gallons of that supply contained dangerous levels of methanol. Methanol, sometimes called wood alcohol, is commonly used in windshield washer fluid and as a solvent and is extremely toxic even in small quantities.
Mexican authorities in Quintana Roo, the home state of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, in January began offering free interpreters and translating services for tourists needing to file police reports.
“We have seen progress from the Government of Mexico, and increased coordination and willingness to address this issue,” a spokeswoman for the State Department told the Journal Sentinel in an email. “We are exploring other ways to assist U.S. citizens in Mexico and continue to raise our concerns with the Mexican authorities.”
Here’s a look at some of the more recent cases reported to the Journal Sentinel:
Blacked out and puking by the seashore
Richard Peterson and his wife, Marion, of Appleton, Wis., were vacationing on a cruise in February. They decided to spend a day at Nachi Cocom Beach Club, a private beach in Cozumel.
Both in their mid-60s, the couple ordered margaritas from the bar, and the drinks were brought to the canopy where they were sitting, Richard Peterson said.
After two margaritas and about 30 minutes, Peterson and his wife started to feel sick. His wife walked down to the shoreline and vomited. Minutes later, Peterson followed.
After a few minutes, a beach club employee approached, asking if they were alright and whether he should call a paramedic. The couple declined.
The Petersons then went back to their canopy and both blacked out for about two hours. They awoke to the same employee asking them if they wanted anything from the kitchen. They declined the offer and headed back to their cruise ship.
It wasn't until they were back on the cruise ship and talking about what happened they suspected they had been drugged or given tainted alcohol.
“After 30 minutes, we were blacked out and vomiting,” Peterson said.
Officials at the Nachi Cocom Beach Club said they did not hear of the Peterson complaint until two weeks after their visit. The resort investigated and did not find any problems with the alcohol, a spokesman told the Journal Sentinel.
Saved by a mother's intuition
Jennifer Drinkwine and her husband, of Castle Pines, Colo., took their three kids to Mexico in May 2017. Their 19-year-old son, Bobby, had a beer with the family at dinner.
They all then went to a show on the property of the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar where they were staying. Bobby did not order any alcoholic drinks and was just enjoying the show. The rest of the family headed back to their room around 11 p.m.
Bobby, who is about 6'1" and 200 pounds, wanted to stay and listen to the music a little longer. Back in their room about 45 minutes later, Drinkwine got a strange feeling. She called Bobby. When he answered she knew something was wrong. She barely recognized his voice.
She raced back to the club and found him staggering in the corner of the bar, completely incoherent. An empty shot glass was on a nearby table. They called for a golf cart to shuttle them back to the room. They had to hold Bobby tightly to keep him from falling off the cart. He was turning white and his eyes were rolling back in his head.
Drinkwine insisted the resort workers call for an ambulance. "We both were just scared to death," she said of herself and her husband. "We thought we were going to lose him." When the medics arrived, they refused to treat Bobby or even help him on the stretcher. Drinkwine and her husband lifted him themselves, and Jennifer jumped in the ambulance to ride with him to the hospital.
Doctors said he was intoxicated. Medical records reviewed by the Journal Sentinel show his blood-alcohol content was .02, well below any scientific definition of intoxication.
He stayed at the hospital for about eight hours and slowly recovered.
"If I had not gone back to check on him, he would have died," Drinkwine said. She said Bobby later insisted he had one shot, though at the time Jennifer wasn't sure she believed him. It didn't make sense — until months later when she saw reports from others describing the same thing. "They're trying to make it seem like these kids are reckless in their behavior," she said. "They're not."
Vacation left women blacked out and bruised
On holiday from Lincoln, Neb., in December, Deborah Swann, 51, and her two adult daughters, were relaxing at the Paradisus Los Cabo pool when a bartender came over and gave them tequila shots.
Swann thought this was strange, because they had not ordered drinks from the pool bar. But Swann and her daughters took the shots assuming her husband had sent them.
Her husband and son were sitting on the opposite side of the pool, so it appeared Swann and her daughters were alone, Swann said.
Swann said drinking the shot is the last thing she and her daughters remember before blacking out and waking up 13 hours later.
During the chaos of trying to get all three women back to the room, one of Swann’s daughters wandered off. Swann's husband found the daughter about 15 minutes later, standing in front of their hotel room surrounded by three male hotel employees. Swann said it is terrifying to think about what might have happened if her husband hadn’t shown up and found their daughter.
All three women eventually made it back to the hotel room with the help of Swann’s husband and son. All of them vomited in the hotel room and have little to no recollection of anything from that evening.
Swann woke up with a bump on her head and a large bruise on her leg and no memory of how they got there.
Swann’s husband complained to the hotel management, saying he was concerned about the possibility they were drugged or drank tainted alcohol. The management assured him they would investigate, but the family never heard anything further.
At the pool the next day the bartender who served the tequila shots seemed to be taunting them by asking how they were feeling and if they wanted more tequila, Swann said.
Swann complained to the hotel again after the family returned home, and she felt her concerns were minimized. She also left a review on TripAdvisor. She said her family will never vacation in Mexico again.
“It felt like such a violation,” Swann said. “We will never ever go back. My whole perspective about Mexico changed, and I no longer feel safe.”
The Paradisus Los Cabos told the Journal Sentinel they were looking into the incident.
'It was like when I woke up from anesthesia'
It was July 2017 and Jennifer Santel hadn't heard of any problems with people blacking out after drinking small amounts of alcohol at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico. She and her husband and their adult children, from Bartelso, Ill., went to Iberostar Paraiso Maya with another couple and their kids.
The parents drank three to four drinks at the swim-up bar — including a couple called "Purple Rain" — throughout the course of the afternoon and quickly began acting crazy and out of character. Their kids took them up to their rooms where all four parents vomited and blacked out. Within three to five hours, all woke up and wondered what had happened.
"When I woke up at 7 p.m., it was an instant awakening," said Jennifer Santel. "It was like when I woke up from anesthesia after my gall bladder surgery. It’s different than waking up from sleep or with a hangover. I suspected then that we were drugged."
The two families were scheduled to depart early the next morning and did not have a chance to talk with resort managers about what happened. Once back in the U.S., Santel contacted her travel agent to inform the company of what had happened.
The travel agent then contacted Apple Vacations and a representative from Apple notified Iberostar. Iberostar apologized for the couples' stress and denied any deliberate adulteration of the drinks.
"We can assure you that we do everything in our power to keep our guests safe the whole time during their vacation," a representative wrote in a Sept. 20 email to the Apple Vacations official. Apple Vacations followed with a brief response to the travel agent reiterating that Iberostar had not been aware of a problem.
Margarita led to an expensive hospital bill
A 66-year-old woman from Danville, Calif., and her 72-year-old husband drank one "Gold" margarita at the Pueblo Bonito Rose in Cabo San Lucas in November. It was about 4 p.m., and they had been drinking water all day.
"It wasn't like we had a day of drinking," the woman, who requested her name not be published, told the Journal Sentinel.
They ordered another margarita and the woman recalls sipping from the second drink and thinking it wasn't great. "When we got up to leave the table I thought, 'Whoa, this is weird.' I was dizzy. The next thing I have any recollection of is laying with my head against the shower wall and my feet stretched out in front of me and going what the heck happened?"
She recalls yelling for her husband, and he recalls hearing her but being unable to move off the bed. Neither knows how they got to their room or what happened.
Their adult children arrived — after the couple didn't show up for dinner — and called an ambulance. The woman spent the night in the hospital. She had a "peach size" knot on the back of her head. Doctors told her she was dehydrated. They did a CT scan but didn't test for drugs.
“I've never in my life blacked out from alcohol, not even when I was younger,” she said.
Total bill: more than $3,200.
Pineapple drink almost caused divorce
On the second day of their stay at the Now Sapphire in Cancun in April 2016, Kayleigh Smith and her husband were having drinks at the resort's main bar around lunch time with other family members gathered for a wedding.
The bartender brought Kayleigh, a 30-year-old from Ontario, Canada, a special pineapple drink that she didn't order. Everybody "ooh'd and ahh'd" and joked that the bartender must have thought she was pretty.
After no more than three drinks, Smith began acting out of control, jumping on the back of her husband's aunt and doing other out-of-character things. She had to be carried back to the room, where she lost control of her bodily functions and blacked out. She regained consciousness about 24 hours later, confused and with no recollection of anything that had happened.
"This occurrence has caused me an immense amount of guilt and shame, because I literally just attributed my actions and behaviour to not being able to handle alcohol," she wrote to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "In reality that was never possible — given the very small amount I had."
Smith said her husband was very angry with her and it caused a serious rift in their relationship. "We almost split up over this," she said in an interview. "I was made to feel such extreme guilt ... It bothered me for a long, long time."
Read the investigation
To read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's investigation into alcohol-related blackouts at resorts in Mexico, and explore other stories of victims, go to jsonline.com/mexicoblackouts.