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Blackout victims at Mexico resorts have little hope of justice

Wednesday - 16/08/2017 20:15
Heidi Sorrem and her husband, Corey, talk about their trip from their Greenfield, Wis., home to a Mexico resort in Sept. 2016 to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. After a couple of shots they both blacked out and Heidi ended up in a hospital. Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The young woman behind the desk at the police station in Playa del Carmen toggled between her cellphone and computer, Snap Chatting with friends and scrolling through Facebook, as she asked the young man from Boston whether he had ever enjoyed sex.

How that was relevant, he didn’t know. He was at the police department in the small Mexican city south of Cancun to report that he had just been drugged and raped while receiving a massage at a world-renowned resort and spa.

The young man was told that the woman — Claudia, as he recalls — was a psychologist. They sat in a windowless room and after a while she handed him some paper and told him to draw some pictures. No stick figures. As detailed as possible. 

A tree. A man. A woman. A person trapped in the rain without an umbrella.

Now draw your family, she said. The 29-year-old man broke down. All he wanted to do was to get home, see his family. The senseless questions and exercises were too much.

But he had to stay — had to endure a four-hour psychological test, a humiliating physical exam and then miss his flight home — if he had any hope of getting justice and stopping the perpetrator from harming anyone else.

He drew the picture.

Three months later, there’s no sign of justice; no indication Mexican police pursued the case. The man is back home, struggling through the emotional aftermath. 

The despair and frustration he’s facing are familiar to dozens of vacationers who have been victimized at upscale, all-inclusive Mexican resorts.

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Following blackouts, robberies, assaults, even the death of a loved one, they have experienced indifferent — if not hostile — treatment from resort staffers, local police, and doctors, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation has found.

The harm is worsened when travelers quickly learn that catching criminals, filing a lawsuit and otherwise obtaining justice in Mexico is nearly impossible.

And that the U.S. Department of State does little or nothing to help them.

“The laws in Mexico make it very, very difficult to hold anyone accountable,” said Nancy Winkler, a Philadelphia attorney who represented a family whose 22-year-old son drowned in a Mexican resort pool in 2007. “It’s a nightmare.”

Heidi Sorrem (left) stands near the receipts and paperwork as she talked about her vacation trip to Mexico with husband, Corey (right.) (Photo: Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

For most, the trouble started when they blacked out after drinking small or moderate amounts of alcohol at resort bars. Often the blackouts happened simultaneously among couples and friends, something none had previously experienced.

While many said they woke up hours later and found no obvious crime had been committed, others described regaining consciousness to learn they had been sexually assaulted, taken to jail, robbed, kicked out of their hotels, swindled by local hospitals and ambulance companies. 

Whether they drank bad alcohol, were deliberately drugged or something else — they can’t say for certain.

As much as 36% of the alcohol consumed in the country is sold or produced illegally, and potentially dangerous, according to a 2017 industry and government report. In a crackdown last week that followed the Journal Sentinel investigation, the government seized 10,000 gallons of illicit alcohol from a company that was supplying tourist hot spots around Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

In all, the Journal Sentinel has heard from more than 60 people from across the United States and Canada with similar stories in the weeks since it began investigating the death of a young Wisconsin woman on vacation in Mexico with her parents and brother. And the number continues to grow.

The majority of travelers stayed in resorts around Cancun, Playa del Carmen and other beaches in Riviera Maya. Several had been to hotels just to the east in Cozumel and others on the west coast in Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta. Many had visited Mexico multiple times. For a few, it was their first visit.

They described resort staffers who stood idle while loved ones vomited, lost consciousness and bled heavily. Hotel managers refused to help, defaulting to the same refrain: Nothing we can do. Too much alcohol. Go to the hospital — with cash. 

When injured tourists turned to police, an instinctive step for many Americans, they were often stonewalled again. For starters, resorts in Mexico don’t typically call law enforcement to the scene. Vacationers have to take complaints to the police station.

The few who did encountered further indifference: Nothing to investigate. It was an accident. You were drunk.

In one case, a woman who was sexually assaulted by a hotel security guard in October 2010, while walking back to the lobby, because her room key had been deactivated, said the police chief overseeing her case seemed genuinely concerned and determined to help her.

Mario Gomez Frias was his name. He was chief of police for tourists. The chief tried to get the Iberostar Paraiso Maya resort to cooperate with the investigation and to provide photos of security staff. 

Frias was shot dead in his squad car months later. Local news reports said it was likely a killing meant to intimidate law enforcement.

The following year, another young woman was raped at the resort by a man wearing a security guard uniform.

Travelers who went to a hospital — some gravely sick — were often met with demands for cash before being provided care.

Rick Autrey, a barber from Dallas, was pulled from a resort pool in May, pulseless and blue. While he was unconscious, his friend had to put $10,000 on his credit card to ensure Autrey would receive care.

Autrey’s wife and children flew down from Texas the next day to be by his side. Upon arrival, the hospital charged his wife tens of thousands more. In all, their bill totaled more than $50,000, including the airlift back to Texas.

“They handed her an invoice every time she passed the desk,” said Autrey, who has not been able to return to work since the injury.

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 Key: Mexico

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