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Victims of blackouts at Mexico resorts need more help from State Department, lawmakers say

Raquel Rutledge, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

MILWAUKEE -- 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.

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.

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