Since July, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been reporting on a series of stories about tourists at Mexican resorts who have experienced mysterious blackouts, resulting in robbery, assault, rape, and death. The culprit? Tainted alcohol - though exactly how it was tainted is another question.
Raquel Rutledge has been the driving force behind the series, which continues to uncover new information and the ways in which authorities have tried to conceal it. When Rutledge first heard a Wisconsin woman died suspiciously at a Mexican resort and authorities were doing little to investigate, she knew she had to do more digging.
"I think as Americans we often think, you know, if I’m traveling abroad and I die under mysterious circumstances that somebody will investigate that, and I heard that wasn’t the case, and I just thought that doesn’t sound right, I need to look into this," she explains.
The Wisconsin woman in question is 20-year-old Abbey McGowan, who died while drinking at a pool bar at a resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. She was swimming alongside her brother who also blacked out in the pool and nearly drowned. Rutledge's first piece detailed what the McGowan family experienced in Playa del Carmen, then the messages started pouring in.
"Very quickly after we published that first story which was in the middle of July, I began getting emails and phone calls immediately from other people who said, 'This happened to us,' you know, 'We were in Mexico and we had a small to moderate amount of alcohol and, you know, my husband and I blacked out at the same time and we were robbed,' or, 'We were assaulted,'" says Rutledge.
It's still unclear what has been happening to these tourists in Mexico, but there's one consistent element to their stories: they were drinking. Rutledge says that in her reporting she's learned Mexico has a problem with regulating their alcohol.
According to her, 36% of the alcohol consumed in Mexico is made under unregulated circumstances, which sometimes means it's merely avoiding the tax stamp or it's industrial alcohol with tequila flavoring. After talking to dozens of people, Rutledge believes the answer to what's been happening is likely complex.
"I suspect there are multiple things happening," she explains. "That it isn't just, 'Oh, it's contaminated alcohol,' or 'Oh, it's - you know, you were drugged by a bartender.' It appears that there are a number of things happening at once."