Today’s shocking story of Americans being kidnapped and murdered in Mexico is just one example of the horrific dangers tourists face while traveling south of the border. In response to this tragedy, Nancy Grace is sharing her research into the dangers tourists face and how everyone can protect themselves if traveling to Mexico.
TRAVEL SAFELY SOUTH OF THE BORDER
AMERICAN WOMAN KILLED IN MEXICO AFTER U.S. ISSUES TRAVEL WARNINGS
The headline leapt off the page at me when I read it in the summer of 2018. Travel advisory? What travel advisory? I dived all over Mexico for years with my dive buddies and never heard of any travel warnings. I remember those sugar-white beaches and the bright turquoise blue water of Cozumel. How could it be that bad? But I read on.
Mexican police were investigating a murder. The victim was a twenty-seven-year-old traveling in Mexico with her husband and celebrating their first wedding anniversary. Raised in Chicago, Tatiana Mirutenko had moved to San Francisco for a job with a pharmaceutical company. She had visited Mexico over thirty times, said her heartbroken dad, and she loved the country – the number one tourist destination for Americans crossing US borders.
One of Tatiana’s fun dreams was, as I like to say, to fly in and eat my way out. She wanted to try out all the best dishes in Mexico on her anniversary.
On the trip, she and her husband dined at two of the top-rated restaurants in the world, Pujol and Quintonil, in one of Mexico City’s upscale neighborhoods, Lomas de Chapultepec. Tatiana loved the dining. She even texted her mom and dad photos of the food. How many of us have done the very same thing?
While walking after dinner in Lomas de Chapultepec, Tatiana was struck and killed instantly by a stray bullet from a shooter passing by on a motorcycle. The intended target was a bouncer, who was wounded but survived.
Tatiana came home to her parents not in a first-class seat next to her husband but in the cargo bay, her body cooled in a casket for burial. That’s the harsh truth. Tatiana Mirutenko became a statistic, one of over twenty-five thousand murders in Mexico in 2018, according to Mexican police.
How many homicides have there really been? Think about it. Tatiana’s dad says that just one year earlier, they were choosing flowers for his daughter’s wedding. And now, they had to pick flowers for her funeral.
Reality check: the US State Department has in the past issued a level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory for major parts of Mexico. This is the same level travel warning set for incendiary states like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Before you travel to Mexico, check for State Department advisories and do not put a single toe in any region of Mexico with strong advisories in place and, according to the US State Department, exercise increased caution if traveling to any part of Mexico at all. While there are often US State Department travel advisories regarding Mexico, apparently nobody’s listening, because last year alone, 35 million tourists threw caution to the wind to travel there. And that number is growing. After Tatiana’s murder, homicides have only risen in the tropical “paradise,” especially in the US tourist magnet Acapulco, which is often one of the top murder spots in the world each year.
It’s not just a matter of armed criminals, pickpockets, and swindlers. It’s not just dopers and gangbangers fighting drug wars over turf and money. We know well that Americans risk shootings, gang wars, assault, and sexual attacks across the border. But now we are learning that tainted alcohol flows like water at luxury resorts and that death is a distinct possibility while relaxing in a major US tourist haven.
I will never forget meeting the dad of a brilliant young American girl on the television studio set belonging to my friend Dr. Oz. I had studied the case carefully, but when I met Abbey Conner’s dad, Bill, I learned so much more, especially about what else is happening south of the border.
In January 2017, the Conner family traveled from Wisconsin for a dream vacation to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. They settled into a fancy, five-star resort, but two hours after checking in, Abbey, just twenty years old, was found floating facedown in a hotel pool at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar resort. Nearby was her brother, twenty-three-year-old Austin, also facedown in the pool. As their dad told me in detail what happened, his voice cracked.
Other guests realized something was horribly wrong when they spotted both siblings floating facedown in the pool. Abbey had a broken collarbone and was most likely already brain-dead. Austin was out cold with a concussion and a huge lump the size of a golf ball on his head.
When Abbey and Austin didn’t show up for dinner, their mom, Ginny, tried to call them. Around that time, an Iberostar employee rushed out to Ginny with a manager, who said there had been an “accident.” By that point, the siblings had already been fished out of the pool and take to a local hospital, but Ginny says she and her husband weren’t notified. Abbey’s dad told me that once they realized the local hospital there in Mexico was not equipped to help, they had Abbey air lifted to a Florida hospital, but to no avail. Abbey passed away a few days later.
Even now, brother Austin insists there was no accident. He vividly recalls the two of them going to the pool, swimming, and then getting a seat at the poolside bar. There was a group of people there that the two didn’t know, but they joined them and started talking. Austin says the bartender poured a line of shots and everyone there took one. The last thing he remembers was sitting there talking. And then he woke up in an ambulance.
But how do two people end up facedown in waist-deep water in the pool with a blow to the head and a broken collarbone? And no one, especially resort employees, saw a thing?
It’s no surprise that local Mexican officials declared Abbey’s death accidental, but Bill told me local police refused to investigate. Even when they hired an interpreter and went to the local police department in person, they say police refused to make a report.
Iberostar Paraiso del Mar Resort insists they acted appropriately and with urgency, but Abbey’s family disagrees. They are adamant Abbey was served tainted alcohol rising to the level of poisonous and have filed a lawsuit against the resort and the US booking website. Their suit says that the alcohol confiscated from the resort contained toxic methanol, there were no lifeguards on duty as there should have been, and there was no surveillance. To top it all off, they say the resort refused to let their investigators on the property.
As a matter of fact, supporting these claims, Mexican law enforcement reportedly conducted raids and seized over 1.4 million gallons of tainted alcohol from Mexican resorts, bars, clubs, and businesses. The family’s wrongful death filing says Abbey’s death was “entirely avoidable” and that Iberostar hotels knew tainted alcohol was being served.
After Abbey’s completely unnecessary death, Mexican authorities swarmed more than thirty establishments to seize even more alcohol being stored in unsanitary conditions. According to reports, hundreds of gallons in one seized stash of alcohol contained extremely dangerous levels of methanol, a dangerous chemical found in windshield washer fluid. Another American woman, Kathy Daley, stated she too is convinced she drank tainted alcohol at a Mexican Iberostar hotel in
2017. She says she couldn’t get out of the pool or stand up and was vomiting.
In fact, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel began an intensive investigation and amassed over two hundred US tourist reports of like incidents at luxury resorts all over Mexico. The fact that you may be staying in a five-star resort may mean nothing. Iberostar refutes the report, but the State Department has now clearly warned Americans traveling to Mexico to consume alcohol in moderation and immediately seek medical attention if they feel sick. Sadly, as grateful as I am for the advisories, no warning, investigation, or exposé will bring Abbey back.
My concern only deepened after I had a chance to leave the Dr. Oz set and talk with Abbey’s dad one on one. I started wondering how many other innocent American travelers were losing their lives on dream vacations. With crime rates in Mexico skyrocketing, I discovered that even the resort island of Cancún, one of my old dive spots, is setting new records for murders. I had no idea what was happening around me when I was there. Just recently, three trash bags of human remains from more than one victim were found dumped in western Cancún early one weekday morning. Even in 2017, tiny, once peaceful Cancún had a whopping 227 murders. In 2018, it more than doubled to a record 540.
The overall crime rates in Mexico are even more disturbing. There were 16,339 homicides reported in Mexico in just the first seven months of 2017, including 953 murders in Acapulco alone. American tourists like Tatiana have been shot by stray bullets and gunned down at restaurants and nightclubs, and bodies riddled with bullets have been found on beaches and in trash bags. And there is no sign of improvement. As a matter of fact, as we go to print, Mexico’s interior ministry announced that murders increased by 33 percent in 2018. In raw numbers that means 33,341 murder investigations versus 25,036 in 2017.
I keep thinking about Tatiana. I think about what her parents and husband have gone through. A feeling of helplessness washes over me when my work brings me to these kinds of stories. Studying the research, I wondered, could it be that more Americans are reported homicide victims in Mexico than in all other foreign destinations put together?
I went to the State Department website and read the travel advisories. This is what I found:
We want you to know the danger of traveling to high-risk places and to strongly consider not going to them at all. Traveling to high-risk locations puts your life, and possibly the lives of others, in jeopardy. Traveling to high-risk areas puts you at increased risk for kidnapping, hostage-taking, theft, and serious injury.
They specifically warn:
Exercise increased caution in Mexico due to crime and kidnapping. Some areas have increased risk.
Here is more from the travel advisory:
Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread. The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in many areas of Mexico as travel by U.S. government emplovees to these areas is prohibited or significantly restricted.
U.S. government employees may not travel between cities after dark, may not hail taxis on the street, and must rely on dispatched vehicles, including from app-based services like Uber, or those from regulated taxi stands. U.S. government employees may not drive from the U.S.-Mexico border to or from the interior parts of Mexico with the exception of daytime travel within Baja, California, and between Nogales and Hermosillo on Mexican Federal Highway 15D.
If the US government places all these restrictions on its own employees while they are in Mexico, what does that mean for the rest of us? Think about it. They go on to insist that we do not travel to Colima state due to crime, Guerrero state due to crime, Michoacán state due to crime, Sinaloa state due to crime, and the Tamaulipas state due to crime and kidnapping. All these regions in Mexico include tourist spots.
IF YOU DO TRAVEL TO MEXICO
The State Department provides the following tips for those traveling in Mexico:
- Use toll roads when possible and avoid driving alone or at night. In many states, police presence and emergency services are extremely limited outside the state capital or major cities.
- Exercise increased caution when visiting local bars, nightelubs, and casinos.
- Do not display signs of wealth, such as wearing expensive watches or jewelry.
- Be extra vigilant when visiting banks or ATMs.
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
- Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.
- Review the Crime and Safety Reports for Mexico.
- US. citizens who travel abroad should always have a contingency plan for emergency situations. Review the Traveler’s Checklist.
Bottom line: when the US issues a travel warning, listen.
According to my research and backed up by Forbes Magazine in 2016, more Americans are killed in Mexico than in all other countries combined.
After discovering these harsh realities about travel to Mexico, I asked, What else am I missing?
Featured Image: A member of the Mexican security forces stands next to a white minivan with North Carolina plates and several bullet holes, at the crime scene where gunmen kidnapped four U.S. citizens who crossed into Mexico from Texas, Friday, March 3, 2023. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the four Americans were going to buy medicine and were caught in the crossfire between two armed groups after they had entered Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, on Friday. (AP Photo)