Mexico says it will act on tainted alcohol, resorts
American tourists suffer dangerous, sometimes fatal effects
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.
The family of Abbey, left, and Austin Conner, right, suspect their drinks were spiked before Abbey died and Austin nearly drowned.
Meghan Gordon and her boyfriend, Paul Jordan, at the swim-up bar in Iberostar’s Paraiso del Mar. The couple later blacked out.