What's Going On With Tainted Alcohol in Mexico?

Didriks/Flickr

Didriks/Flickr

Sipping a margarita on a white-sand beach sounds like the perfect way to while away a summer vacation day, but if you’re heading to Mexico anytime soon, you might want imbibe with an extra dose of caution.

More than three dozens travelers have reported falling ill after consuming tainted alcohol at a host of upscale, all-inclusive resorts in the tourist hotspots of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel, as well as Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta. The reports come after an extensive investigation into the death of 20-year-old Abbey Conner, who died at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar in Playa del Carmen in January. Conner and her brother, Austin, were both found unconscious in the hotel pool after drinking at the bar -- Austin survived.

The United States is now warning visitors to the country to beware of tainted or counterfeit alcohol. “There have been allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out,” the warning says. “If you choose to drink alcohol, it is important to do so in moderation and to stop and seek medical attention if you begin to feel ill.”

A 2017 report by Euromonitor International found that 36 percent of the alcohol consumed in Mexico is illegal -- either sold or produced under unregulated circumstances -- which is down from 43 percent in 2015.

If you’re traveling to the country soon, there are a few precautions you can take to keep yourself safe while you drink:

  • Watch your drinks being made. Insist that the bartender open bottles in front of you, and avoid drinks that are poured from a tap or use pre-made mixers. 
  • Even legitimate-looking bottles of liquor may have been filled with tainted alcohol, so opt for beer and wine from sealed bottles for a safer choice.
  • Purchase your own bottles of alcohol from the airport’s duty-free section. While you may have to pay a corkage fee at the resorts, consuming your own monitored alcohol may be worth the peace of mind.
  • Never leave your drink unattended, and if your drink smells or tastes “off,” don’t drink it.

In the meantime, Senator Salvador López Brito, president of the Mexico's health commission, said in an interview that there is an initiative in progress to improve the controls and inspections for tainted alcohol at resorts. Brito says the plans will be presented in September.

UPDATE 8/15/2017: Mexican authorities have seized 10,000 gallons of illegal alcohol. After raiding 31 resorts, nightclubs, and restaurants in Cancun and Playa del Carmen suspected of serving tainted alcohol, the government was led to a liquor manufacturer supplying the illicit substances. Two establishments were temporarily shut down: the popular Fat Tuesday bar in Cancun and the lobby bar at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar in Playa del Carmen, which is part of the resort complex where Abbey Conner died. Some 90 gallons of tainted alcohol were confiscated from the two bars alone.

Additional reporting by Stefanie Waldek.

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