MILWAUKEE — They didn’t know.
Their travel agents didn’t warn them.
They didn’t find signs of trouble on TripAdvisor or government websites.
And nothing on Apple Vacations, Cheap Caribbean, Expedia, Transat or other popular booking websites suggested potential danger. Instead, images of sunshine, margaritas and bikinis on the beach splashed seductively across their computer screens, portraying business as usual in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
But there was nothing usual about what happened when Chelsea Keith ordered room service before bed on Jan. 18 at the BlueBay Grand Esmeralda.
Nor when Jason Enwere hailed a cab from Playa del Carmen back to the resort where he was staying in February with his younger brother and mom to celebrate her 50th birthday.
They and dozens of other tourists from the U.S. and Canada were traumatized by recent encounters — ranging from blacking out after a couple of drinks to robberies, sexual assaults, drownings and deaths of loved ones — while visiting all-inclusive luxury resorts and nearby tourist areas of Mexico.
Travelers were repeatedly reporting such incidents to U.S. and Canadian consular agencies, as well as to the resorts, tour operators such as Apple Vacations, and their local travel agents. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has heard from more than 170 tourists who described their troubles in Mexico, the vast majority within the past two years.
But the travel industry didn’t share the information with the next vacationers booking trips, a Journal Sentinel investigation has found.
Had the governments and industry been doing their jobs, the tourists should have been told, according to well-established case law.
Though few travelers know it, travel agents and companies have a legal obligation to inform their customers of known risks.
“I can't believe that the tourism industry in the United States and Mexico had me deceived,” wrote Seattle-area mom, Trish Bozich, in a March 17, 2016, email to the U.S. consulate.
“Shame on me for being the naïve parent.”
Bozich’s 19-year-old son had been robbed and was found unconscious in a ditch and taken to jail in Cancun while there for spring break. The police required Bozich to wire them $300 before they would release him. They held him in the jail for hours with no water and heckled and threatened him, Bozich said.
“Parents NEED this information so that they can make an informed decision BEFORE they press ‘purchase’ on that Expedia package to Mexico for their college student,” her email said.
In an ongoing investigation, the Journal Sentinel has uncovered a barrage of terrifying experiences vacationers have had while staying in all-inclusive luxury resorts and visiting nearby tourist areas.
In most of the cases, the incidents ran contrary to the conventional wisdom offered to tourists by travel agents selling trips to Mexico: Just stay on the resort and in the tourist areas. You’re safe there.
The travelers told the Journal Sentinel they were following the rules. They weren’t drinking too much, wearing expensive jewelry or flashing cash. They didn’t go out looking for drugs. And the few that left the resorts went to the popular tourist stretch of Playa del Carmen to shop, dine or dance and paid close attention to their surroundings.
The victims were young and old, male and female. In some cases they blacked out in pairs — tall, hefty men losing consciousness at the same time as their petite wives, half their weight.
They never expected they would black out after a couple of drinks, get abducted from their luxury hotel room, or robbed and beaten nearly to death in a taxi. They didn’t realize they would be met with hostility from resort staff, police and hospital workers when they sought help.
The Journal Sentinel confirmed the reports through interviews, receipts, hospital and police records, photographs, court documents and other research.
Last May, Jennifer Drinkwine, her husband, and their three kids traveled from Colorado to the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar, the same resort where — just four months earlier — 20-year-old Abbey Conner of Pewaukee, Wis., drowned in the pool under suspicious circumstances.
Drinkwine’s 19-year-old son drank a beer with dinner one night, then the family went to the resort club to listen to music. He did not order anything to drink. After a short time the rest of the family was ready to head for bed; their son wanted to stay.
Back in the room less than 45 minutes later, Drinkwine got a strange sense that something was wrong. She dialed her son. When he answered, she did not recognize his voice. He was slurring his words and not making sense. She raced back to the club and found him in a corner, incoherent. An empty shot glass on the table in front of him. His eyes were rolling back in his head, his pulse weakening. He couldn’t walk.
"We thought we were going to lose him," said Drinkwine.
At the hospital, doctors said he was intoxicated. Medical records reviewed by the Journal Sentinel show his blood-alcohol content was 0.02 percent, well below any scientific definition of intoxication. He stayed at the hospital for about eight hours and slowly recovered. He recalled drinking just one shot. He didn’t know what it was.
“My travel agent and Apple Vacations made it seem like it was my son's fault for drinking too much,” Drinkwine said. “There was no advisory, warning, story or mention from our travel agent of any risks.”