Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are pressuring the State Department 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, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said 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 show 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 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 Abbey Conner, a 20-year-old 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.
Since that story, 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 State Department keeps sparse data on deaths of U.S. citizens in Mexico and only in the past several months began tracking injuries. It since has 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 American citizens who have been victims of crimes.
The State Department should help victims gather evidence and “navigate an ineffective foreign legal system, not merely provide limited guidance and essentially let them fend for themselves,” Baldwin wrote.
“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."
Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in email Sunday 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, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to Tillerson saying he worried that the State Department was underplaying the risks U.S. travelers face in Mexico because U.S. citizens might have a false sense of security at resorts.
State Department officials say they already have improved communication with travelers since conducting an internal assessment of their policies in the past year.
They found that travelers did not understand the difference between travel warnings and travel alerts and what to do in response. They launched a new information program in January that streamlines the warning system.
Officials did not offer any new or additional information about the problems tourists are experiencing at Mexican resorts but said they 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,” a spokesman for the department wrote in email.
Spring break for some colleges and universities starts as early as this week, according to the student travel website StudentCity.
The State 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 that U.S. citizens 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and 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. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington at (888) 407-4747.
Follow Raquel Rutledge on Twitter: @raquelrutledge