The chairman of a key U.S. Senate committee is calling on the State Department to get answers as to how a 20-year-old Wisconsin woman drowned in the pool of a Mexican resort and how others are being injured after consuming alcohol at resort bars.
In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) urged the department to “do everything in its power to obtain information from the Mexican government” about the January death of Abbey Conner and other incidents.
Johnson chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. He sent the letter to Tillerson on Wednesday.
The action comes in the wake of a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation into the death of Conner — and a host of other injuries involving vacationers who blacked out after drinking at the resorts and woke up hours later.
Some were sexually assaulted or robbed. Others were taken to jail or kicked out of their hotels. Many said they were gouged by local hospitals that refused treatment until they were paid in cash. Several reported similar drownings of their loved ones dating back four, five and 10 years. Often, local police declined to investigate.
Conner, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student from Pewaukee, and her older brother, Austin, ended up face down and unconscious in a pool in Playa del Carmen just a couple of hours into their family vacation in January.
Austin Conner, 22, survived but had a severe concussion and doesn’t recall what happened after drinking at the swim-up bar at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar.
Abbey Conner was brain dead and on life support for several days before being flown to Fort Lauderdale, where she was pronounced dead.
Johnson said his staff recently met with representatives of the Mexican embassy and have questions about their classification of Conner’s death as “accidental.”
The circumstances surrounding the death raised suspicion among Conner’s family when the resort refused to allow bartenders and guests to be interviewed and said they had no surveillance video. In addition, Abbey Conner had a broken collar bone and Austin Conner had a large lump on his head.
Johnson also requested information from the State Department pertaining to correspondence the department has had with the Mexican government surrounding Conner’s death as well as the other injuries Americans have sustained after drinking alcohol.
And, specifically, he asked whether the department tracks incidents involving potentially tainted alcohol at Mexican resorts and how vacationers should report problems they’ve had.
Johnson said he shares the Conner family's concerns about "the lack of transparency surrounding what happened."
Austin Conner said Wednesday he's hopeful that his family will finally get some answers and that Iberostar and other resorts will be forced to clean up their problems.
"It upsets me that it’s gotten this far with this many people," he said. "I just wish it didn’t get to this point. If they had gotten answers sooner…
"This was not an accident."
In July, after the first Journal Sentinel stories, the State Department alerted travelers to Mexico about possible tainted or counterfeit alcohol that could cause sickness and blacking out.
The department updated its information page specific to Mexico under Safety and Security, cautioning tourists who choose to drink alcohol to “do so in moderation and to stop and seek medical attention if you begin to feel ill.”
The Journal Sentinel has heard from more than 60 vacationers who experienced such problems while staying at the resorts, typically after drinking limited amounts of alcohol.
In some cases, couples reported blacking out at the same time. Whether they had bad alcohol or were deliberately drugged, they can't say. Many reported the blackouts did not feel anything like being drunk.
Incidents have happened at Iberostar’s property in Cancun and at the company's cluster of resorts 30 miles to the south in Playa del Carmen. Incidents were also reported at other all-inclusive resorts in the region.
Authorities seize illicit alcohol
Mexican health authorities swept through 31 resorts, restaurants and bars in Cancun and Playa del Carmen following the Journal Sentinel reports and seized 10,000 gallons of illicit alcohol and shut down one of the bars — KuKulka in the Iberostar Paraiso Maya lobby — in the same resort complex where Conner drowned.
Authorities found "expired" and "unlabeled" alcohol at the bar, along with other sanitation violations.
Iberostar denied having “tainted” alcohol on its premises and noted in a statement to the Journal Sentinel that the bar was just one of 43 that are featured in its five resorts in the area.
“All other bars and restaurants in IBEROSTAR Paraiso Maya and the remaining nine IBEROSTAR hotels in Mexico remain open and operating normally,” the statement read.
“We are diligently working to resolve the issues pointed by the inspector and expect another evaluation within the next several days so that this bar’s operations can be fully restored … The safety and well-being of our guests and personnel are IBEROSTAR’s top priorities.”
Illicit and counterfeit alcohol is a longstanding problem in Mexico. Industry and government reports have found as much as 36% of the alcohol consumed in the country is illegal.