And nothing on Apple Vacations, Cheap Caribbean, Expedia, Transat or other popular booking websites suggested potential danger. Instead, images of sunshine, margaritas and bikinis on the beach splashed seductively across their computer screens, portraying business as usual in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
But there was nothing usual about what happened when Chelsea Keith ordered room service before bed on Jan. 18 at the BlueBay Grand Esmeralda.
Nor when Jason Enwere hailed a cab from Playa del Carmen back to the resort where he was staying in February with his younger brother and mom to celebrate her 50th birthday.
They and dozens of other tourists from the U.S. and Canada were traumatized by recent encounters — ranging from blacking out after a couple of drinks to robberies, sexual assaults, drownings and deaths of loved ones — while visiting all-inclusive luxury resorts and nearby tourist areas of Mexico.
Travelers were repeatedly reporting such incidents to U.S. and Canadian consular agencies, as well as to the resorts, tour operators such as Apple Vacations, and their local travel agents. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has heard from more than 170 tourists who described their troubles in Mexico, the vast majority within the past two years.
But the travel industry didn’t share the information with the next vacationers booking trips, a Journal Sentinel investigation has found.
Had the governments and industry been doing their jobs, the tourists should have been told, according to well-established case law.
Though few travelers know it, travel agents and companies have a legal obligation to inform their customers of known risks.
“I can’t believe that the tourism industry in the United States and Mexico had me deceived,” wrote Seattle-area mom, Trish Bozich, in a March 17, 2016, email to the U.S. consulate.
“Shame on me for being the naïve parent.”
Jason Enwere of Toronto was robbed and severely beaten by a taxi driver and passenger after he hailed a cab back to the all-inclusive resort where he was staying in Mexico in February 2018. (Photo: Courtesy of Jason Enwere)
Bozich’s 19-year-old son had been robbed and was found unconscious in a ditch and taken to jail in Cancun while there for spring break. The police required Bozich to wire them $300 before they would release him. They held him in the jail for hours with no water and heckled and threatened him, Bozich said.
“Parents NEED this information so that they can make an informed decision BEFORE they press ‘purchase’ on that Expedia package to Mexico for their college student,” her email said.
In an ongoing investigation, the Journal Sentinel has uncovered a barrage of terrifying experiences vacationers have had while staying in all-inclusive luxury resorts and visiting nearby tourist areas.
In most of the cases, the incidents ran contrary to the conventional wisdom offered to tourists by travel agents selling trips to Mexico: Just stay on the resort and in the tourist areas. You’re safe there.
The travelers told the Journal Sentinel they were following the rules. They weren’t drinking too much, wearing expensive jewelry or flashing cash. They didn’t go out looking for drugs. And the few that left the resorts went to the popular tourist stretch of Playa del Carmen to shop, dine or dance and paid close attention to their surroundings.
The victims were young and old, male and female. In some cases they blacked out in pairs — tall, hefty men losing consciousness at the same time as their petite wives, half their weight.
They never expected they would black out after a couple of drinks, get abducted from their luxury hotel room, or robbed and beaten nearly to death in a taxi. They didn’t realize they would be met with hostility from resort staff, police and hospital workers when they sought help.
The Journal Sentinel confirmed the reports through interviews, receipts, hospital and police records, photographs, court documents and other research.
Last May, Jennifer Drinkwine, her husband, and their three kids traveled from Colorado to the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar, the same resort where — just four months earlier — 20-year-old Abbey Conner of Pewaukee, Wis., drowned in the pool under suspicious circumstances.
Drinkwine’s 19-year-old son drank a beer with dinner one night, then the family went to the resort club to listen to music. He did not order anything to drink. After a short time the rest of the family was ready to head for bed; their son wanted to stay.
Back in the room less than 45 minutes later, Drinkwine got a strange sense that something was wrong. She dialed her son. When he answered, she did not recognize his voice. He was slurring his words and not making sense. She raced back to the club and found him in a corner, incoherent. An empty shot glass on the table in front of him. His eyes were rolling back in his head, his pulse weakening. He couldn’t walk.
“We thought we were going to lose him,” said Drinkwine.
At the hospital, doctors said he was intoxicated. Medical records reviewed by the Journal Sentinelshow his blood-alcohol content was 0.02 percent, well below any scientific definition of intoxication. He stayed at the hospital for about eight hours and slowly recovered. He recalled drinking just one shot. He didn’t know what it was.
“My travel agent and Apple Vacations made it seem like it was my son’s fault for drinking too much,” Drinkwine said. “There was no advisory, warning, story or mention from our travel agent of any risks.”
A ‘duty to warn’
Courts in both the United States and Canada have established that purveyors of travel have a “duty to inform,” or “duty to warn,” about all sorts of conditions in travel destinations.
If you book a June trip to Southeast Asia and your travel agent doesn’t mention it’s rainy season, experts say, they can be held responsible. Same goes for serious dangers such as outbreaks of Zika virus or civil unrest.
While travel sellers are not guarantors of safety, the courts have ruled they can be held liable for “failure to warn” if an injured party can prove an agent knew — or should have known — about the risk but did not disclose it.
“They are expected to have a certain level of expertise,” said Ken Whitman, senior program manager with Aon, which insures more than 6,000 travel-related companies. “Duty to warn is a theme that runs throughout the whole industry.
“If you’re going to an area that is crime infested, the agent needs to say ‘You need to beware.’ ”
Same resort, multiple incidents
Chelsea Keith was hungry. She had gone to her room at the BlueBay Grand Esmeralda ahead of her boyfriend and another friend around 1 a.m. to order room service. The quesadilla on the menu sounded good, so she dialed the restaurant. The man on the phone double checked, just one? Yes, she said, just one.
He said it would be about 30 minutes. She got in the shower and had just stepped out when she heard a knock on the door. She threw on her night clothes, but before she could get to the door, it opened and the delivery man was inside her room.
She told him he didn’t need to come in and tried to take the tray from him. He insisted on setting it on the dresser, then told her to come sign the receipt. As she was signing her name, he grabbed her and threw her to the bed. He said vulgar things and started touching and licking her over much of her body.
“The best way I can describe it was like a ravaging dog, just trying to get anything he could get,” said Keith, 31, of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The man was about 5’7” with a medium build and looked to be in his late 20s, Keith said.
Adrenaline kicked in. She fought back. Being 5’10”, strong and athletic, she was able to push him off and hurl him toward the door. As the struggle continued, her boyfriend and another friend arrived. The man ran off.
“This was my first time out of Canada,” Keith said. “I was always told when you’re on the resort, you’re safe.”
Keith’s trip was booked with Transat, a Canadian-based tour operator that provides vacation packages that include airfare, ground transportation to and from the airport as well as the cost of the resort. The only advice a representative offered was when they arrived and got on the shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel. The driver told them not to pay full price at the shops. They should bargain, the driver said. Not one mention of safety precautions.
Keith tried to get resort workers to call the police, but they refused. When she and her boyfriend called the police themselves, officers never came. Instead, when the couple woke up the next morning, there was a resort worker standing in their room looking at them.
They yelled for him to get out and called Transat. The company moved them to another resort that day.
Keith didn’t know that just a few weeks earlier, a woman from Peterborough, Ontario, reported that her 22-year-old daughter had been drugged at the same resort and abducted from their room.
Or that several months earlier, in July 2017, a 47-year-old woman reported that her glass of champagne — the only alcohol she had that night — had been spiked. She immediately became woozy and disoriented and went to the hospital.
Records show both women had complained to BlueBay Grand Esmeralda, the Canadian consulate as well as Transat or other partner companies.
The responses both received sounded boilerplate.
“We sincerely appreciate the time and effort you spent on writing and forwarding us your comments with regards to your stay here with us at the BlueBay Grand Esmeralda, without a doubt they will contribute to the constant improvements of our services offered and guarantee that we will share and discuss this situation in our meeting board this week and take the necessary steps to avoid in our resort any of the situations mentioned in your comments,” the manager on duty, Alonzo Avila, wrote in an Aug. 1, 2017, email to Lynn Nugent, the 47-year-old from Ontario.
And from the Canadian government to Karen Newton, the mother of the 22-year-old abducted from their hotel room:
“Thank you for contacting Travelalerts.ca,” the agency responded in a Jan. 2 email. “We appreciate the time you have taken to write us. An agent will respond to your inquiry shortly.”
Nobody did. When Newton contacted them again in February, she got a similar response.
“I am very sorry to hear about these very troubling events which unfolded during your vacation in Mexico,” wrote a representative of Global Affairs Canada, the equivalent of the U.S. State Department. “Please be advised that I will share your concerns with the Case Management Officer responsible for Mexico.”
That was it.
Travel agents and tour operators continued to book BlueBay Grand Esmeralda with no warning on their websites.
A month after Keith’s visit, another woman reported experiencing a blackout at the same resort. She contacted the Journal Sentinel last month, describing how she ordered a margarita while waiting to check into her room, then went to lunch and ordered a second one. That’s the last thing she remembered. She regained consciousness seven hours later in bed with no recollection of how she got there or of anything beyond sitting down for lunch.
When asked by the Journal Sentinel what Transat is doing to inform travelers of risks in Mexico and in response to reports that tourists have complained to Transat that they were not made aware of the dangers, spokeswoman Debbie Cabana wrote that Transat had “taken note” of some of the recent events.
“All our operations remain business as usual and we are closely monitoring the evolution of the situation,” Cabana wrote.
She said Transat would allow change requests for customers seeking to cancel or modify their travel plans.
For Keith, Nugent and Newton, there’s been no recourse.
“I may be jaded, but it feels as if there’s an agreement between the two countries to keep it low key … at the expense of future victims,” Newton said of Mexico and Canada. “Our governments should be held responsible for ensuring that tourists are made aware and properly educated on what’s really happening out there.”
Tourists to Mexico had been reporting suspected druggings and injuries repeatedly — alerting resorts, tour operators and consular affairs offices. But the U.S. State Department wasn’t tracking the cases. The agency only began tracking the numbers in the last several months since the Journal Sentinel began exposing problems. They’ve since received 20 reports of injuries tied to suspected tainted alcohol.
Department officials wouldn’t share any details about the incidents — when, where or what happened — with the Journal Sentinel, citing privacy reasons. Nor do they share the information with travel agencies.
When the Journal Sentinel asked the tour operators and representatives of the American Society of Travel Agents, an industry trade association, how they gather data and share the information so members can pass it along to travelers, they pointed back to the U.S. State Department, citing it as a major source of their information.
In one case, a representative from Apple Vacations told a worried man inquiring about tainted alcohol and sexual assaults at a Mexican resort that he would have to contact officials in Mexico himself.
“There is no running list of occurrences in any resort that would identify reported incidents in location. If you would like to pursue specifics to any reported incidents you would need to reach out to the local authorities in the area and submit the question to them, in turn they may need you to fill out the proper documentation to receive information in regards to a single incident and or location,” the agent, whose name was only signed, “Finn,” wrote in a Nov. 1, 2017, email to customer Joe Pesce, of suburban Philadelphia. “Details such as you are asking for are not available to the general public including ourselves …”
The Apple Vacations representative then referred Pesce to TripAdvisor, suggesting that website would be a good resource.
On the same day of the email, a story was published exposing how TripAdvisor had been deleting travelers’ stories of rapes, assaults and other troubling incidents.
“We don’t think the best source of data for this is our reviews, but rather law enforcement or the hotels themselves. … We always recommend travelers keep an eye on travel advisories and visit the State Department website for the most up to date information.”
Victoria Cagliero, a spokeswoman for Expedia
Pennsylvania-based Apple Vacations is a classic tour operator, offering package deals to Mexico and the Caribbean that typically include non-stop flights, ground transportation and week-long stays at all-inclusive resorts.
What travelers may not know is that the company is a subsidiary of Apple Leisure Group. Apple Leisure Group is the parent company of Cheap Caribbean, AMResorts and AmStar.
The key to these connections? AMResorts operates Dreams, Secrets, Sunscape, Now, Breathless and Zoetry resorts. As of January, the company had 29 resorts in Mexico.
Those resorts often top the list of search results when travelers seek vacation packages to Mexico on Apple Vacations’ website.
As for Amstar, that company provides destination management services. So when people who were injured at any of these resorts, their complaints got channeled through a web of Apple Leisure Group subsidiaries.
Apple Leisure Group advertises itself as “the nation’s top seller of all-inclusive vacation packages” and suggests it holds “a unique niche in the U.S. travel industry” leveraging six industries.
Yet Apple Leisure Group and Apple Vacations refuse to release injury and death data of guests to their affiliated properties — or the many other properties, such as Iberostar, that they partner with.
Prior to Abbey Conner’s death at the Iberostar — which prompted the Journal Sentinel’s initial investigation — at least three women had previously reported to the resort, the U.S. consular agency and tour operators they had been sexually assaulted at the same resort complex. Two were attacked by workers in security uniforms.
The Journal Sentinel has received more than 20 reports about blackouts and injuries at Iberostar resorts in Mexico.
Still, Apple Vacations continues to book tourists at the resorts without any specific warnings about crimes or problems at Iberostar properties on its website. And officials with Apple Vacations won’t say how — or if — it tracks injuries and deaths there, or at any other partner hotels.
“Should an incident occur, it is most often resolved on site by the hotels and resorts themselves,” said spokesman Josh Kahn. “As such, Apple Vacations does not receive weekly, monthly or regularly scheduled incident reports from the properties in our portfolio. That said, we are in regular communication with all of our partners in the region on a variety of issues pertaining to visitor safety and satisfaction.”
In a 2009 court deposition after the drowning death of Boston native Nolan Webster, 22, at the Grand Oasis in Cancun, a senior executive of Apple Vacations, Tim Mullen, said the company did collect weekly incident reports.
In other testimony, an Amstar employee said the two companies communicated about accidents and incidents.
The company was aware of Webster’s death and the many witness accounts saying resort staff had prevented a Canadian nurse from performing CPR on Webster.
Yet no alerts or warnings were issued.
In another deposition in the same case, Apple Vacation’s CFO, Julia Davidson, said the company does not consider safety factors when selecting and rating partner properties.
“Does anyone at Apple Vacations do any type of investigation of the resort before saying, OK, we are going to consider this resort one of our resorts that we send our clients to?” an attorney for Webster’s mother, Maureen Webster, asked.
“We don’t do inspections or investigations,” Davidson answered. “We don’t have trained building inspectors. We don’t have safety inspectors.”
Davidson said it’s not the company’s responsibility to warn travelers about all the possible risks including crime statistics or the lack of lifeguards at pools with swim-up bars.
“We can’t begin to imagine all the things that could happen to someone conceptually or begin to warn them about all of the things that might happen,” she said.
The questioning continued:
Attorney: “And, in fact, do you believe that your responsibility ends when you book the trip as a tour operator and that you don’t have to worry about the safety at the resort for your customers at all?”
Davidson: “I have no control over the safety at the resort.”
Attorney: “Do you believe that a tour operator has a responsibility to prospectively look at the resort to which it offers its customers to determine if there are any safety issues?”
Davidson: “No, I do not believe that and the law does not put us in that position to the best of my knowledge.”
Maureen Webster later launched a website — mexicovacationawareness.com — to warn travelers about the many serious risks pervading the tourism industry in Mexico.
Karen Smith came across the website six years later. But it was too late. Her 38-year-old son, Brian Manucci of New Jersey, had already drowned in the same, crowded resort pool. Smith said she encountered the same indifferent, unhelpful response from the resort.
“It would never occur to me — and I suppose potential travelers — that a tour operator would promote a resort where they have first-hand information of potential dangers,” Smith said.
“The best way I can describe it was like a ravaging dog, just trying to get anything he could get.”
Chelsea Keith, about delivery man who attacked her in her room
On March 26, at least 14 visitors to Dreams Playa Mujeres — an AMResorts property in Cancun — reported to management and online their fear stemming from a shootout on the beach in front of the resort that day, according to postings on TripAdvisor and interviews with travelers who were there.
One man was on the beach with his grade-school-age daughter when gunfire erupted beside him. His wife and other children were at the pool.
“Bullets were flying, people came running into the hotel and resort staff just seemed to go on with life,” the man’s wife told the Journal Sentinel. The family did not want their names or any identifying information about them published out of fear for their safety.
Little to no information was shared with guests. There was no assurance of beefed up security. And within about 45 minutes, guests said, the music was turned back up and games of beach volleyball had resumed.
“We were just shocked, just totally totally stunned. I was afraid we weren’t going to make it out of Mexico.”
After the first few postings on TripAdvisor regarding the shootout, Joshua Campos, the resort’s social media coordinator and e-concierge posted a response saying that the resort has cameras, trained security agents and a fenced perimeter.
“We are aware of an incident that occurred on a public beach in proximity to our resort, which appears to have been an altercation between some local residents. No activity occurred on our property and none of the resort staff were involved in this incident,” Campos wrote. “Guests and operations were not affected.”
Like Apple Vacations, executives with Expedia and Transat would not disclose whether or how they keep track of injuries and deaths on partner properties.
“We can’t comment on proprietary internal policies,” Victoria Cagliero, a spokeswoman for Expedia, wrote in an email to the Journal Sentinel. “We can assure travelers that there is a vast amount of activity going on behind the scenes on their behalf.”
Expedia’s website does not contain destination-specific warnings for Mexico.
Additionally, Cagliero said vacationers should not depend on the reviews by travelers that Expedia publishes when weighing the safety of a place.
“We don’t think the best source of data for this is our reviews, but rather law enforcement or the hotels themselves,” Cagliero said.
In a follow-up email, she added: “We always recommend travelers keep an eye on travel advisories and visit the State Department website for the most up to date information.”
Thomas Dickerson, a retired New York appeals court judge and travel law expert, said travel agencies and tour operators have a strong incentive not to collect, archive and report negative events.
“Of course their response is, ‘We don’t know anything,’ ” said Dickerson. “That’s an old defense. In trial you have to establish that they had access to information. They’re not going to tell you upfront that they keep any records.”
Comfort levels with risk
Michael Barney is an analyst for iJET, a risk-management company that specializes in travel risk.
The company’s clients include tour operators, Barney said, but he would not disclose which ones.
iJET and other risk management companies, such as International SOS, collect safety and security information often used by employers sending workers to locations around the world.
The companies gather data from an array of sources, including media accounts, government reports and statistics, academic studies, on-the-ground sources and other means to compile as complete a picture as possible, said Barney, regional manager of the Americas for iJet.
“We avoid telling people this is safe or isn’t safe, or don’t go here, go here,” Barney said. “We provide an assessment of the risks so they can better understand them. … We try to be extremely timely and as accurate as possible. We try not to be alarmist.”
John Werner, president of Mast Travel Network, a consortium of about 220 travel agencies, said his firm has been getting a lot of calls from travel agents with concerns about what to tell their customers about Mexico.
Similar to the American Society of Travel Agents, Mast gathers information about destinations from a variety of sources, hotel companies, media reports and the Mexico Tourism Board. Mast also relies heavily on the U.S. State Department.
He said his company recommends agencies focus on their customers’ comfort level with risk. If seasoned travelers are planning their 50th trip to Mexico, there might not be a need to discuss safety. But first-time travelers are a different story, he said.
“I wouldn’t say (travel agencies) are steering people away from Mexico, or any destination for that matter, unless the State Department has a big warning on traveling somewhere,” Werner said. “It’s really the customer’s comfort level.”
Similar problems with deaths, rapes and crimes on cruise ships led a group of parents and lawmakers to push for federal legislation requiring cruise companies to report such crimes to the FBI. The Cruise Vessel and Security Act of 2010 also gave the FBI jurisdiction to investigate, something more difficult for the agency to do in a foreign country.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched a web page containing statistics on cruise line incidents, vessel safety and details on where passengers can turn for assistance.
“They never would have done it on their own” said Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, a Phoenix-based non-profit. Carver’s daughter went missing from a cruise ship in 2004. “Our bill isn’t perfect, but it starts to build an awareness of the various crimes that are occurring.”
Traumatizing taxi ride
Jason Enwere and his brother had been planning to take their mom somewhere special for her 50th birthday. Enwere, a 26-year-old college student from Toronto, researched the resorts in late January and settled on an all-inclusive near Playa del Carmen.
He hadn’t heard about any safety problems around Playa del Carmen. He and his mom and brother went into town one afternoon to check out the shops. Enwere went back that night to check out the nightlife, but didn’t go in any clubs and wasn’t drinking. He met some other Canadians and talked for awhile, then hailed a cab back. It was around 12:45 a.m.
The first few taxis that stopped wanted to charge him 450 pesos when he had paid 100 earlier in the day. After awhile, a cab driver agreed to 200 pesos. There was a man in the backseat, but that didn’t seem unusual, since there were other passengers in his cab on the way to town earlier in the evening.
“When I saw his head and legs, I lost it and I started screaming. I was just devastated. What did we ever do? We just came for a holiday. We just wanted a week of rest.”
Dorothy Eze, Jason Enwere’s mother
Within a few minutes he noticed the taxi driver was taking a different route back. The driver made a few turns and they soon were on a dark, quiet street. The man in the back grabbed him by the neck and began choking him. They demanded his phone and money.
“I knew I was going to get hurt,” Enwere said. “They were already hurting me without giving me a chance. I decided to fight back.”
He kicked and punched and tried to break free. He remembers the grasp on his neck being so tight that he passed out.
“Everything slowed down. I could hear my breath slowing down,” he said.
He regained consciousness, with wind blowing in his face. He was hanging out of the car. The car slowed and pulled over. The next thing Enwere knew, the man from the back seat was smashing his skull with a rock the size of a volleyball. The man then jumped back in the car and they sped away.
“I knew I had to get up and move or I would never get back to my family.”
Enwere limped down the street, most of the skin gone from one of his legs. The back of his head and face were bleeding. After a few blocks he saw what appeared to be police officers. But they didn’t seem worried about him or particularly helpful.
They asked him what happened. And then they searched his pockets for money.
“It was just horrible,” Enwere said.
But there was one man who seemed like he had a little more good in him than bad, Enwere said.
After huddling and whispering with the others, the man came back and got him another taxi. He was back at the resort about 45 minutes later. His brother and mom were waiting outside.
“When I saw his head and legs, I lost it and I started screaming,” said his mother, Dorothy Eze. “I was just devastated. What did we ever do? We just came for a holiday. We just wanted a week of rest.”
Stephan Barth, a law professor at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston, said how travel agents and tour operators handle injuries and deaths — like any other business — is a matter of risk management.
“Some might argue they’re playing Russian roulette,” said Barth, who is also founder of hospitalitylawyer.com, an international network of attorneys that focuses on travel and tourism. “They will get sued at some point.
“For many companies today, they’ve made the calculated decision that it’s cheaper to insure than it is to do the right thing.”
The terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium have brought the issue of travel safety and students to the national spotlight. Families of murdered or injured students thought that Western Europe was safe. They were wrong.
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