The dangers of buying alcohol from a non-licensed supplier, wholesaler or retailer
Raquel Rutledge, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Officials with the U.S. Department of State are now tracking reports of blackouts and injuries related to potentially tainted alcohol in Mexico and said Friday they have already received a dozen complaints.
The agency has come under fire from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in recent months for "underplaying" the risks to tourists traveling to Mexico and for not doing enough when U.S. citizens are injured or die while vacationing there. One U.S. senator called the department's response to tourist troubles in Mexico "disingenuous."
The announcement comes three days after the U.S. Office of Inspector General launched an inquiry into the agency's policies and procedures for handling those cases.
"We are concerned about reported incidents that the consumption of substandard or unregulated alcohol in some tourist areas in Mexico has resulted in illness or blacking out," said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, in a statement released Friday.
"We take our responsibility to provide safety and security updates to U.S. citizens very seriously. Following these reports and in consultation with our Embassy and Consulates in Mexico, on July 26, 2017, we updated our Country Specific Information for Mexico to provide information regarding unregulated alcohol concerns," the statement said. "Any U.S. citizen who falls ill should seek immediate medical attention. We also encourage U.S. citizens to contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate in Mexico."
The action comes amid an ongoing investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which since July has identified more than 120 cases of tourists who reported blacking out and being robbed, taken to jail, sexually assaulted and otherwise injured.
The incidents ranged from several years ago to recent weeks. Most were staying in upscale, all-inclusive resorts in popular tourist areas.
Many of those injured reported drinking small to moderate amounts of alcohol before blacking out. The blackouts happened to young and older people alike, men and women, as well as to couples and friends. Often, two people reported blacking out and reawakening at the same time.
When the Journal Sentinel asked State Department officials in July about how often tourists reported being injured in Mexico, an agency spokeswoman said the department did not keep any such data.
As such, the Journal Sentinel reported, the agency had no way to spot worrisome trends.
And while the department tracks deaths from unnatural causes, it relies on the Mexican government for information and gathers few details.
The death of Abbey Conner, the 20-year-old from Pewaukee who drowned under suspicious circumstances on a family vacation in January, was not included in the tally, for example. Although she was pulled lifeless from a resort pool, she was taken off life support several days later in Florida.
On Friday, State Department officials would not disclose any details about the 12 complaints it has received, citing privacy reasons. They would not say when or where the problems occurred or what specifically happened.
A department spokesman said the agency will use the reports to "press the Government of Mexico and Mexican state authorities to make the safety and protection of U.S. tourists a priority." He said consular officials are continuing to meet with their counterparts at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, DC, to discuss their concerns.
He would not say whether the issue was discussed when Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray met Thursday with U.S. homeland security officials in Washington.
In recent weeks, Mexico's head of tourism has launched a public relations campaign in the U.S. denying widespread problems with tainted alcohol. The blitz is aimed at quelling fears among American travelers, many of whom are in the process of planning winter getaways.
A 2017 report by the Mexican government and liquor industry found as much as 36% of the alcohol consumed in Mexico is illicit, meaning it's produced under unregulated conditions - ranging from bypassing proper taxing authorities to counterfeit manufacturing.
The government encourages bars, restaurants and resorts to break their empty liquor bottles to keep them from being sold on the black market and refilled with bootleg booze.
The U.S. Department of State encourages anyone who becomes ill or injured to contact the nearest consular office in Mexico. There are nine offices scattered across the country and are staffed 24 hours a day, agency officials say.
In addition, the department suggests travelers report problems with tainted food or beverages to Mexican authorities at email@example.com.
To read the Journal Sentinel's investigation into alcohol-related blackouts at Mexico resorts, go to jsonline.com/mexicoblackouts.