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Full Version: Mother's nightmare at Mexico resort: 'There is more to this deeper darker story'
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She didn’t walk out.

That much Karen Newton knows about the night her 22-year-old daughter went missing from their room at a luxury resort in Mexico’s alluring Riviera Maya.

She couldn’t walk. She could barely stand. It was 1:30 a.m. when her daughter had come back to the room from the beach bar — escorted by a friend — and it was clear to Newton her daughter had been drugged.

She wasn’t vomiting. She had no muscle control and couldn’t speak, couldn’t even hold her head up. Worried, but thankful she was safe in the room, Newton tucked her in and lay beside her, keeping watch. After a couple of hours, Newton drifted to sleep.

She’s not sure if it was the bathroom light, or noise from the fan, but something woke her around 4:30 a.m. She sat up.

Her daughter was gone.

It was a few days after Christmas — more than six months since the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel began reporting on alcohol-related tragedies involving American and Canadian tourists vacationing in Mexico.

While the U.S. State Department, Canada’s department of global affairs, members of Congress — both Republican and Democrat — as well as travel websites and Mexican authorities vow they are making changes and doing what they can to ensure the safety of travelers, their slow, bureaucratic efforts have yet to prevent the harms.

The Journal Sentinel has identified another 10 people who reported terrifying — in some cases near-death — experiences while visiting Mexico over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays alone.


FULL COVERAGE: Mexico blackouts investigation

FORM: Did you have a similar experience at a Mexico resort? Tell us your story

Like the more than 140 previously reported incidents, the newest ones include vacationers who blacked out after consuming a few drinks — sometimes just one. They regained consciousness hours later, many of them to learn they had been robbed, sexually assaulted, bruised, bloodied or otherwise injured.

“It has to stop,” said Newton, of Peterborough, Ontario. “Somebody has got to stop this.”

The case of Newton’s daughter is among the latest to emerge and contains the strongest indication of sinister motives behind some of the incidents.

Karen Newton raced through the halls and down the stairs at the BlueBay Grand Esmeralda resort shouting her daughter’s name. She ran to the pool and along the tree-lined pathways that wound through the sprawling property. No sign of her. She ran into a security guard who, speaking English, asked if he could help. She told him her daughter was missing.

They hurried back to his security desk and he made a call, speaking to somebody —Newton doesn’t know who — for several minutes in Spanish. When he hung up, he turned to Newton and asked if she understood Spanish.

Not much, she said. She had not understood anything he had said on the phone.

He told her to come with him. As they walked along the path, a golf cart came speeding up behind them. It slowed in front of them but didn’t stop. The security guard began running behind it, then jumped on the back.

“It speeds up and takes off and leaves me standing there, in the dark, by myself at 4:30 in the morning,” Newton said. “No word of explanation.”

Newton sprinted back toward her room, frantic. Up four flights of stairs. At the top, at the far end of the hallway, she saw her daughter. She was stumbling, being dragged by two security guards, one on each arm. She was half clothed. And chasing behind them, an angry man.

“He was irritated that they were taking her,” Newton said. “When I saw her, she only had on her skimpy little underwear, bare feet, a towel wrapped around (the top of) her, coming down the hallway and this guy looking, peering over top of her like ‘Who’s taking my girl!’”

Newton wrapped her arms around her daughter and pulled her toward their room.
As she turned back to question the men, they had all vanished, except the security guard who had left her standing in the dark.

“No English,” he told her. “I don’t speak English.”

Back in their room behind the locked door, her daughter fell against the wall and slowly slurred the words, Nine…hundred…fifty…dollars, Mom. Nine…hundred…fifty…dollars. She repeated it about three times.

“I said, ‘What are you talking about, Hon?’”

Cases show common factors
Like most of the other reports, the circumstances surrounding what happened to Newton’s daughter raise many questions. Hard proof of any crime — drugging, kidnapping, sexual assault — is nearly impossible for tourists in Mexico to obtain.

The Journal Sentinel investigation found that resorts are reluctant to call law enforcement or an ambulance and often tell guests they have to take a taxi to the police station or hospital if they want help. In the case of one young woman from Illinois who was raped at a resort in June, police did show up, but refused to question bartenders or anybody who was in the area. Her mother told the Journal Sentinel they refused to offer any help whatsoever.

n addition, medical testing at the local hospitals is not consistent, the Journal Sentinel found. Health care workers don’t test for many of the common so-called date-rape drugs and frequently say the patients are simply drunk. In one case, they diagnosed an Iowa woman who had one drink and a few sips off her second drink with being extremely intoxicated. In the same medical records, examined by the Journal Sentinel, results of her blood alcohol test show her level was .02 — well below any scientific definition of intoxication.

One of the facts backing Newton’s observation that her daughter was drugged surfaced when her daughter woke up in the morning. She was a little tired, but felt nearly fine. She had no memory of anything that happened. She said she was not one bit hungover.

Her daughter’s knees were scraped and bruised. She doesn’t think she was raped, but she’s not certain.

Newton’s daughter did not want to be interviewed for this story or have her name published. To help confirm Newton’s story, the Journal Sentinel did extensive interviews and examined receipts, photographs and correspondence between her and the Canadian office of global affairs.

When Newton went to the resort’s managers and asked them to call police, they refused, she said.

“They make you feel like you’ve done something wrong,” she said. “They want you to feel like you were drunk and it was your own fault.

“I was thinking she needs to be checked … but I knew it wasn’t the safest to go off the resort … and she didn’t want to go. She said, ‘Mom, I don't want to do it. I don't want to go there. I just want to get the hell out of this country. I don't want to do it’…She was really emotional.”

Her daughter couldn’t say what the $950 was about. Newton could only guess.

“I think she overheard a conversation of some sort, whether somebody had paid for her … I can’t even go there.”

“It just blows my mind that they can get away with it,” Newton said. “I love Mexico, but not anymore.

“There's more to this deeper, darker story than we know.”

Targeted drugging vs. tainted alcohol
Among the 150 incidents identified by the Journal Sentinel, some believe they were targeted, as they awoke to find they were victims of crimes. Others found no motive for what happened. They got violently ill, but were not robbed or assaulted. Some who were sick, however, were encouraged by resort officials to go to the local hospital, where they paid thousands — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars — for care.

Authorities in Mexico have long acknowledged a problem with illicit alcohol.

A 2017 report by the government and alcohol industry found as much as 36% of all the alcohol consumed in Mexico was produced under unregulated circumstances. A portion of that is product that escapes the tax stamps and a smaller percentage is counterfeit alcohol, industry representatives say.

Last week, the government seized more than 18,700 gallons of illegal tequila. Tests found more than 235 gallons contained dangerous levels of methanol.

Methanol is commonly used in windshield-washer fluid and as a solvent and is extremely toxic. Like alcohol, it is a central nervous system depressant. But unlike alcohol, it is poisonous — and potentially deadly — even in small quantities.

Amitava Dasgupta, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston, said some of the cases detailed by the Journal Sentinel sound to him like methanol poisoning.

About 2,600 gallons of the supply was initially discovered on a freight truck headed out of the western state of Jalisco, one of a handful of places where tequila — in order to legally be labeled tequila — is made.

Officials from Consejo Regulador del Tequila (the Tequila Regulatory Council) said the trade organization participated in the bust, but told the Journal Sentinel on Monday they didn’t know where the contaminated supply was slated to go. Two men were arrested in connection with the bootleg booze and the distillery was shut down, officials said.

“The tequila that was confiscated will be destroyed,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

An investigation into the operation is underway, she said.

Government authorities confiscated more than 10,000 gallons of illicit alcohol in August, after a crackdown in tourist hotspots following the Journal Sentinel’s initial reports.

RELATED: As dozens more report blackouts at Mexico resorts, country says it will act on tainted alcohol

At the same time, leaders of the tourism ministry in Mexico insist there is no evidence of tainted alcohol at resorts. The ministry launched a public relations blitz in October to allay fears and assure Americans — who are the biggest contributors to the nation’s $20 billion a year tourism industry — that it’s safe to visit.

It’s difficult to know the scope of the illnesses and injuries vacationers sustain in Mexico. The U.S. State Department only recently began collecting such information, and travelers don’t always contact consular services when they encounter trouble in Mexico.

Dozens have told the Journal Sentinel they tried over the years to post warnings on the travel website TripAdvisor, but that the company refused to publish them or quickly deleted them once they were posted.

TripAdvisor apologized to several people in the wake of a Journal Sentinel story that revealed how the company had silenced stories from travelers reporting harrowing experiences. The company said it would be changing its policies and stepping up training for its staff and moderators. Representatives of the company say health- and safety-related posts — as long as they are first-hand accounts — are welcome.