Tourists Face Danger Of Assault, Blacking Out In Mexico | Wisconsin Public Television

Tourists Face Danger Of Assault, Blacking Out In Mexico

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Premiere Date: 
December 22, 2017

Tourists Face Danger Of Assault, Blacking Out In Mexico

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge has done extensive reporting on tourists in Mexico blacking out after drinking tainted alcohol, and joins us to provide an update on her work. Rutledge says it is hard to know how widespread the problem is, as some of the tainted alcohol remains "under the radar of regulators." She adds that the U.S. Dept. of State is tracking deaths from this.

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

This time of year, thoughts turn to the warming sun of beachfront resort vacations, but the dangers of some resorts and popular destinations in Mexico resulted Wisconsin's U.S. Senator Ron Johnson calling for a federal investigation because dozens of people reported being robbed, sexually assaulted and injured after drinking alcohol at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico. In tonight's closer look, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge, who broke the story and continues to report on it, joins us with details. And thanks a lot for being here.

Raquel Rutledge:

Well, thank you for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

So what is the status, if you know, of the U.S. Inspector General's investigation?

Raquel Rutledge:

Well, it's early. They just announced in the last ten days or so that they were going to take a look at how the State Department handles these complaints because, as we reported back in July and August, they weren't keeping track of injuries and assaults in Mexico. They do keep track of deaths. But even that database is not inclusive. So when the young woman, Abby Conner, drowned in a Mexican resort pool, her death was not included in the tally because she actually technically was taken off of life support in Florida. So it's early. It's hard to say where that investigation is going to go.

Frederica Freyberg:

So if the State Department heretofore wasn't tracking these numbers, what you did discover in your reporting about the potential number of incidents at these resorts?

Raquel Rutledge:

Gosh, it's hard to say the scope of this thing. Since we wrote that first story, which just raised questions about what was going on, I have gotten dozens and dozens -- right now I’ve heard from about 150 people I would say, that have told of drinking small to moderate amounts of alcohol, blacking out, being sexually assaulted, robbed, otherwise encountering trouble there and those are just the people who have read our stories and took the time to reach out. So it's hard to say how wide spread it really is.

Frederica Freyberg:

What about the number of deaths and specifically victims from Wisconsin?

Raquel Rutledge:

Well, we know of, gosh -- I know of about at least seven or eight deaths. And, again, these are people that are drowning in resort pools, sometimes during the day, and some of these pools are waist-high water. The people that I’ve heard from -- their loved ones, they're from all around the country. I may have heard from somebody from Canada as well on that front.

Frederica Freyberg:

Resorts keep saying that they use only premium alcohol and yet Mexican authorities I understand acknowledge problems with tainted alcohol. Like what's happening with the alcohol being served at these resorts?

Raquel Rutledge:

Yeah. Well, they deny the tainting. What they do acknowledge is that they have a vast problem with illicit alcohol and illegal alcohol. So whether it's counterfeit. It's made under unregulated conditions, poor manufacturing practices, without tax stamps, it's under the radar of regulators. That number is about 36% of all the alcohol consumed in Mexico, falls into that category. Now, a percentage of that is thought to be tainted. So they'll deny that they found any evidence of contaminated alcohol, but what I can tell you is the people that I’ve talked to, many, like I said, dozens, they report drinking one, sometimes two, three drinks and then blacking out, sometimes simultaneously with their spouse and these are people that are all different sizes. You have men that are 6'3" and these petite women and they will black out at the same time, for hours and then come to around the same time. There is something going on. We just don't know exactly what it is just yet.

Frederica Freyberg:

Additionally your reporting showed that the resorts often were not only not helpful in these emergencies, but specifically unhelpful. Describe some of that.

Raquel Rutledge:

Yeah. That is a theme, a common theme that I’ve heard from people when they -- when they seek help, when they are injured or, you know, otherwise face trouble, the resorts are not cooperative in terms of supplying any kind of surveillance video. They often have refused to call the police. You know, as Americans we think, oh, you know, you get into trouble, call the police. That is not the way it works in Mexico. Often if something happens to you, it's your responsibility to get to the police. So you have to take a taxi to go to the police often and even there then what people have encountered is a hesitant police force that says, you know, "Hey, well, it looks like you were drunk, looks like you -- you know, there's nothing here to investigate. The drowning was accidental," for example. So they're not getting -- there's no recourse when something goes wrong.

Frederica Freyberg:

Knowing what you know -- and I don't know if this is like a fair question to a reporter, but knowing what you know, briefly, what's your best advice for those traveling to these Mexican resorts?

Raquel Rutledge:

Yeah. I mean, that is a tough question because there is not a lot you can actually do to totally protect yourself. I mean, some of the safety tips that have come out are not helpful. I mean, suggesting that you watch -- you know, watch what's being poured into your cup. That's not helpful because we know in Mexico that some of the alcohol is counterfeit, so it might look like it's in an authentic bottle, but they have a problem with counterfeit alcohol making its way into authentic-looking bottles. So you can't tell that. You know, everybody has to gauge their own risk. You know, everybody has a different comfort level with what sort of risk they're willing to take. So it's really hard to say because you can say stick with beer, but I have interviewed some folks that had tap beer and blacked out shortly thereafter. So maybe canned beer might be better that you open yourself? Again, that's just sort of me speculating from talking to dozens of people.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. Well, I need to leave it there, but thank you, Raquel Rutledge, very much for your reporting on this.

Raquel Rutledge:

Thank you for your interest in it.

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