Mex­ico says it will act on tainted al­co­hol, re­sorts

Amer­i­can tourists suf­fer dan­ger­ous, some­times fa­tal ef­fects

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Raquel Rut­ledge Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel

Four days be­fore Abbey Con­ner was found float­ing face down in a pool at a Mex­i­can re­sort, Mary Jo Kuhn waded over to a swim-up bar in the same com­plex. On her sec­ond drink, she blacked out. Days af­ter Con­ner was pulled from the wa­ter, Meghan Gor­don and her boyfriend were sit­ting on stools at the same swim-up bar where Con­ner and her brother had­been drink­ing te­quila on a fam­ily va­ca­tion. Through­out the af­ter­noon, a friendly bar­tender served Gor­don and her boyfriend a cou­ple of mixed drinks, then two rounds of te­quila shots. Nei­ther can re­mem­ber vom­it­ing or be­ing es­corted away by ho­tel se­cu­rity.

The two in­ci­dents are among more than three dozen that have sur­faced in the wake of a Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel in­ves­ti­ga­tion this month into the death of 20-year-old Abbey Con­ner at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar in Playa del Car­men in Jan­uary.

Trav­el­ers from around the coun­try have called and emailed the Jour­nal Sen­tinel, de­scrib­ing sim­i­lar in­ci­dents at nu­mer­ous re­sorts in Mex­ico and pro­vid­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion for their sto­ries.

They de­scribe how they got sick and blacked out — many times af­ter just two drinks — while va­ca­tion­ing at the up­scale, all-in­clu­sive re­sorts in the re­gion around Can­cun, Playa del Car­men and Cozumel, as well as in Cabo San Lu­cas and Puerto Val­larta.

Some were robbed, sex­u­ally as­saulted and oth­er­wise se­ri­ously in­jured. Many were hos-

pital­ized. Some said they were forced to pay clin­ics huge sums in cash be­fore get­ting treat­ment.

Oth­ers can find no ap­par­ent mo­tive for why they might have re­ceived tainted or “spiked” al­co­hol.

The pres­i­dent of Mex­ico’s health com­mis­sion, Sen. Sal­vador López Brito, said the leg­is­la­ture is work­ing on an “ini­tia­tive to im­prove the con­trols and in­spec­tions for tainted al­co­hol at re­sorts.”

The leg­isla­tive plans will be pre­sented in Septem­ber, Brito said, with­out pro­vid­ing ad­di­tional de­tails.

Ap­ple Va­ca­tions, which books trips for a half-mil­lion va­ca­tion­ers to Mex­ico every year, said Thurs­day that it will in­crease its ef­forts to en­sure the re­sorts with which it works are com­ply­ing with al­co­hol pro­cure­ment and other fed­eral reg­u­la­tions.

Ap­ple Va­ca­tions also said it will push for ho­tels and re­sorts to in­stall cam­eras in key pub­lic ar­eas such as swim­ming pools and bars.

Trav­el­ers, in­clud­ing Con­ner’s par­ents, told the Jour­nal Sen­tinel the re­sorts claim they have no sur­veil­lance cam­eras and thus no video ev­i­dence of ac­ci­dents or crimes that take place on their prop­erty.

“Even though Ap­ple Va­ca­tions does not own or op­er­ate the ho­tels, we will be rec­om­mend­ing that all the prop­er­ties to which we send guests, re­view their safety and se­cu­rity pro­ce­dures and con­sider tak­ing ad­di­tional mea­sures,” the com­pany said in a state­ment.

Ear­lier this week, the U.S. State Depart­ment up­dated its health and safety no­tice for Mex­ico, warn­ing trav­el­ers of con­cerns about tainted and coun­ter­feit al­co­hol.

Abbey Con­ner of Pe­wau­kee, Wis., was on a fam­ily va­ca­tion and was at the pool less than two hours be­fore be­ing found un­con­scious. Her brother, Austin, 22 at the time, was drown­ing next to her when they were spot­ted by some­one who sum­moned help.

Austin had a lump on his head, a se­vere con­cus­sion and no rec­ol­lec­tion of what hap­pened. Abbey was brain dead. Medics later dis­cov­ered she had a bro­ken col­lar­bone. Tests from the lo­cal hos­pi­tal showed her blood-al­co­hol level was 0.25. His was 0.26, the hos­pi­tal re­port said.

The cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing her death and the way it was han­dled by the re­sort, lo­cal po­lice and the hos­pi­tal — which has a con­tract with the re­sort — prompted the Jour­nal Sen­tinel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

What could make two peo­ple black out at the same time — as many cou­ples re­ported — some­how wind up back in their ho­tel rooms, and wake up hours later with no mem­ory of what hap­pened?

Matthew John­son, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Johns Hop­kins School of Medicine, has no di­rect ev­i­dence, but the sto­ries point to sev­eral likely pos­si­bil­i­ties: scopo­lamine, phen­cy­cli­dine (bet­ter known as PCP) or methaqualone (the seda­tive in Quaaludes, a drug pop­u­lar in the 1970s).

Based on the many ac­counts va­ca­tion­ers de­scribed, any of those drugs seems to make sense, said John­son, a spe­cial­ist in be­hav­ioral phar­ma­col­ogy.

They all can cause peo­ple to be “awake” but not know or re­mem­ber what they’re do­ing. When mixed with al­co­hol, the ef­fects are ex­ac­er­bated and can cause all kinds of phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal re­ac­tions.

Scopo­lamine, also called “devil’s breath,” has been widely used in crimes in Colom­bia, where it is de­rived from the bor­rachero tree. In pow­der form added to a drink, it can lead to hal­lu­ci­na­tions, fright­en­ing im­ages and loss of free will. And it’s known to cause am­ne­sia.

Sev­eral peo­ple in­ter­viewed by the Jour­nal Sen­tinel said they re­called be­ing ter­ri­fied. They couldn’t say ex­actly why.

“When peo­ple say it’s the ‘zom­bie drug,’ that’s not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion,” John­son said. “It’s not a drug of abuse. Peo­ple don’t like to get high on it.”

Low doses of scopo­lamine also come in patches that are pre­scribed by doc­tors to help with mo­tion sick­ness.

One cou­ple from North Carolina in­ter­viewed by the Jour­nal Sen­tinel said they were wear­ing the patches in March while on a snorkeling ex­cur­sion in Cozumel. Like oth­ers, they had a few drinks. The last thing they re­mem­ber is vom­it­ing. Nei­ther has any idea how they made it back to their cruise ship cabin.

They woke up hours later and felt lucky to be alive. One had a large bruise on her thigh. Both her knees were scraped and bloody.

PCP came to mind when John­son learned some of the peo­ple also re­ported that they had gone into a rage. Also known as “an­gel dust,” PCP causes hal­lu­ci­na­tions, slurred speech, stag­ger­ing and other symp­toms that re­sem­ble in­tox­i­ca­tion.

Meg Ward was taken to the hos­pi­tal af­ter she and a friend were drink­ing shots at the Grand Oa­sis Tu­lum in June. She was foam­ing at the mouth and be­com­ing un­re­spon­sive.

“I’m a 25-year-old girl from Mil­wau­kee,” Ward said. “I know how to drink, and I know my lim­its.”

Once at the hos­pi­tal, Ward started punch­ing her friend, swear­ing at the doc­tors and rip­ping the IV from her arm.

“I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘I need to es­cape,’ ” Ward said.

She raced out of the hos­pi­tal and al­most ran in front of an on­com­ing car.

Quaaludes are an­other pos­si­bil­ity mostly be­cause they’re still widely used in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, John­son said.

Tak­ing the sto­ries col­lec­tively, he said, “it sounds pretty con­vinc­ing that peo­ple are be­ing spiked with some­thing pur­pose­fully.”

In the case of Abbey and Austin Con­nor, a drug test at a hos­pi­tal in Mex­ico for com­mon “date-rape” drugs came up neg­a­tive, though not all pop­u­lar ones were in­cluded.

Doc­u­ments pro­vided to the fam­ily by the hos­pi­tal do not show that screens were done for PCP, Quaaludes or scopo­lamine.

Ad­di­tional sto­ries from other trav­el­ers cast doubt on the thor­ough­ness and ac­cu­racy of tests done at the lo­cal hos­pi­tals.

The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment has long ac­knowl­edged that the na­tion has a prob­lem with adul­ter­ated al­co­hol.

A 2017 re­port by Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional found 36% of the al­co­hol con­sumed in the coun­try is il­le­gal, mean­ing it is sold or pro­duced un­der un­reg­u­lated cir­cum­stances and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous.

The study, done in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the na­tion’s Tax Ad­min­is­tra­tion Ser­vice, found that was an im­prove­ment from two years ear­lier, when 43% was il­le­gal.

MANUEL VALDES, AP

FAM­ILY PHOTO

The fam­ily of Abbey, left, and Austin Con­ner, right, sus­pect their drinks were spiked be­fore Abbey died and Austin nearly drowned.

PAUL JOR­DAN

Meghan Gor­don and her boyfriend, Paul Jor­dan, at the swim-up bar in Iberostar’s Paraiso del Mar. The cou­ple later blacked out.

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