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Hurt tourists need help from U.S. State Department

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Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are continuing to pressure the U.S. Department of State to reform the way it handles deaths and injuries to U.S. citizens vacationing in Mexico.

In a letter Monday to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said it’s clear from the more than 140 recently reported cases of tourists blacking out and getting injured — and in some cases dying — after drinking small or moderate amounts of alcohol, that the department needs to take a more “proactive, victim-centric” approach.

“While I understand that the State Department does not have legal jurisdiction to investigate specific cases, I am confident that a clear-eyed, comprehensive analysis of the information provided by victims will reveal systemic issues related to illicit alcohol, weak and corrupt law enforcement and judicial institutions, an absence of the rule of law, and an overall dangerous environment for U.S. citizens in Mexico,” Baldwin wrote.

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At the urging of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the Office of Inspector General opened an inquiry in December into how the department has been handling reports from U.S. citizens who were injured or whose loved ones died while on vacation in Mexico. No details on the inquiry have been released.

The pressure from elected officials follows a months-long investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which first uncovered the array of problems in July.

The news organization began investigating after 20-year-old Abbey Conner, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student, drowned under suspicious circumstances on a family vacation in January 2017, within hours of arriving at a resort. Her older brother, Austin, then 22, was found unconscious nearby but survived. He has no memory of what happened.

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Since that story published, the Journal Sentinel heard from more than 140 people who had terrifying, sometimes tragic, experiences while visiting Mexico, most often while staying at upscale, all-inclusive resorts.

“I request that the State Department use the information contained in these stories to appropriately reform its consular affairs operations in Mexico and its relationships with Mexican partner organizations that do not share our interests,” Baldwin wrote in the letter to Tillerson.

The Department of State keeps sparse data on deaths of U.S. citizens in Mexico and only in the last several months — in the wake of the Journal Sentinel investigation — began tracking injuries. It has since received 17 reports of alcohol-related injuries, according to figures the department provided Friday.

Travelers expressed frustration and feelings of being re-victimized when resort staff, police, even doctors and local hospital workers appeared indifferent and sometimes hostile when they sought help.

The vacationers were further shocked when the U.S. State Department did little to nothing to help them, the Journal Sentinel’s investigation found.  

Workers at U.S. consulate offices in Mexico say they have little ability to help U.S. citizens who have been victims of crimes. The workers cannot advocate on behalf of the citizens. They cannot translate the language. They cannot offer legal advice or help investigate a situation.

The State Department should help victims gather evidence, Baldwin wrote, and “navigate an ineffective foreign legal system, not merely provide limited guidance and essentially let them fend for themselves.” 

“Unfortunately, the issue of illicit alcohol in Mexico is not going away, and U.S. citizens continue to be victimized,” she added. “Making matters worse, this is just one thread in the larger web of Mexico’s degrading security, governance and human rights climate.

“Given Mexico’s demonstrated inability to provide a safe environment for our citizens, it is clear that the usual playbook for managing the U.S.-Mexico relationship, including for U.S. consular affairs operations, is not working.”

Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in an email Sunday to the Journal Sentinel that he is eager to see the Inspector General’s report. 

“My committee continues to seek answers from the State Department regarding Abbey Conner’s death, and others who suffered tragic incidents while traveling to Mexico,” Johnson wrote. “The State Department should do everything it can to warn Americans of the dangers … and to provide assistance to travelers when abroad.”

In August, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Tillerson saying he worried the State Department was underplaying the risks U.S. travelers face in Mexico.

Markey noted he was concerned “for the safety of U.S. citizens vacationing in Mexico who consume potentially tainted alcohol” and who might have a false sense of security at resorts.

CLOSE

Reporter Raquel Rutledge talks about her recent story about the travel site TripAdvisor removing warnings about rapes and injuries at Mexico resorts.

State Department officials say they already have improved communication with travelers since conducting an internal assessment of their policies during the last year.

They found travelers did not understand the difference between travel warnings and travel alerts and what to do in response. They launched a new information program last month that streamlines the warning system.

It did not offer any new or additional information about the problems tourists are experiencing at Mexican resorts, but said it met again in December with Mexico’s minister of tourism and elected officials and “raised concerns about unregulated alcohol and the security situation in tourist areas and encouraged the Governors to improve communication with U.S. citizen tourists.”

“The U.S. Mission in Mexico continues to press the Government of Mexico and Mexican state authorities to make the safety and protection of U.S. tourists a priority,” a spokesman for the department wrote in an email to the Journal Sentinel.

As it stands, the department has designated the whole country of Mexico a Travel Advisory Level 2, meaning tourists should “Exercise increased caution.” Level 3 means tourists should reconsider their travel plans; Level 4 is a suggestion by the State Department that U.S. citizens do not travel there. 

Last month, the department designated certain areas of Mexico as Level 3 and 4, but did not include the popular tourist destinations of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Los Cabos or Puerta Vallarta, instead classifying those locations as Level 2.  

The State Department encourages those who’ve experienced trouble while on vacation in Mexico to contact both the Mexican Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risk at contactociudadano@cofepris.gob.mx as well as the American Citizen Services unit at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, or the nearest U.S. Consulate.

In addition, the department is urging travelers to notify the U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C., at 1-888-407-4747.

Raquel Rutledge is an investigative reporter. Her work has been recognized with numerous national awards, including a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for exposing rampant fraud in Wisconsin’s child-care subsidy program. Contact Raquel by email at rrutledge@jrn.com, or by phone at 414-224-2778. You can follow her on Twitter: @raquelrutledge. 

 

 

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