Mexican authorities swept through 31 resorts, restaurants and nightclubs in Cancun and Playa del Carmen in recent days, suspending operations at two for unsanitary alcohol and in the process discovered a sketchy manufacturer that was supplying tourist hot spots.
Regulators seized 10,000 gallons of illicit alcohol from the company, noting its “bad manufacturing practices,” according to government officials. They did not release the company's name.
Among those suspended: the lobby bar in the Iberostar Paraiso Maya, a resort in the complex where Abbey Conner, a 20-year-old Wisconsin woman, drowned amid suspicious circumstances while on vacation with her family in January.
Other vacationers later told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they had blacked out and been assaulted at the resort after drinking at the beach and pool bars.
Regulators also temporarily shut down Fat Tuesday, a bar in Cancun. They seized a total of 90 gallons of illicit alcohol from the two places, including some from Iberostar’s lobby bar that was unlabeled.
The results of the crackdown were announced Friday at a news conference in Mexico. Officials provided information about the announcement, including an audio recording, to the Journal Sentinel.
“This is awesome; this is huge,” said Ginny McGowan, Abbey Conner’s mother.
“It’s needed. There is obviously stuff going on that needs to be cleaned up and looked into further,” said McGowan, who lives in Pewaukee, Wis. “They need to investigate and interview employees. This makes sense. This needs to happen.”
The crackdown follows an investigation by the Journal Sentinel, launched last month, that exposed how dozens of travelers to some upscale, all-inclusive resorts around Cancun and Playa del Carmen have been blacking out after drinking small and moderate amounts of alcohol.
Some have been assaulted and robbed. All reported little or no recollection of what happened. The incidents occurred at various resorts, to men and women of varying ages, single and in pairs.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel compiled some of the reports of tainted alcohol at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico based on travelers who reached out to the newspaper. (Photo: Journal Sentinel/ Special to The Republic)
An attorney hired by Conner's family noted in a report given to the family in July that "low quality" alcohol was being served and mixed at Iberostar’s Paraiso del Mar bar where Conner and her brother, Austin, had been drinking before they were found floating in the pool.
Austin, then 22, awoke with a concussion and gash on his forehead and no memory of what happened.
The Conner family — and others who have blacked out — suspect tainted alcohol or targeted drugging may be to blame, but Mexican authorities have not disclosed any connections.
The Mexican government has long been aware of the country’s problems with counterfeit and otherwise illicit alcohol. As much as 36% of the alcohol consumed in the country is illegal, according to a report this year by Euromonitor International.
That means the alcohol is sold or produced under unregulated circumstances and is potentially dangerous. The study, conducted in collaboration with the nation’s Tax Administration Service, found that was an improvement from two years earlier, when 43% was illegal.
The national health authority in Mexico has seized more than 1.4 million gallons of adulterated alcohol since 2010 — not just from small local establishments, but from hotels and other entertainment areas, according to a 2017 report by the country's Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks.
The U.S. Department of State failed to warn travelers about the alcohol risks in resort areas until the Journal Sentinel’s investigation.
In the case of Kukulkan, the lobby bar at Iberostar Paraíso Maya, inspectors found unsanitary conditions including water leakage, lack of disinfectant and expired and unlabeled alcohol.
Other establishments in Playa del Carmen were cited for lack of maintenance, cleanliness, order and documentation, including the Hotel Iberostar Paraíso Lindo, Hotel Iberostar Grand Paraíso, La Chopería, Los forgotten, McCarthy's Coco Bongo, Mexico Loco and Guy Fieri's.
Those cited for the same reasons in Cancun include: Iberostar Hotel, Hooters, La Vaquita, Blue Gecko, Dady’O, Mr. Frogs, Crab House, Fred’s House, Porfirio’s Cancun, The Distillery, La Casa del Habano, and Carlos ’n Charlie’s.
Alvaro Perez Vega, the commissioner of sanitation, called Quintana Roo — where Cancun and Riviera Maya are located — the "most important tourist destination in the country," and said ensuring the safety of visitors there is a top priority.
“We are continuing to work together with the secretary of tourism to ensure the health of the tourists in the region and the rest of the country,” Perez Vega said.
Officials did not say whether they were referring any of their findings for criminal prosecution. Nor did they reveal whether they are investigating the circumstances surrounding Conner’s death.
The head of the Mexican legislative health commission said last month that they are planning a broader effort to crack down on counterfeit alcohol. Details are expected to be revealed in September, he said.