by Michael J. Shapiro | August 14, 2017
Mexican authorities raided 31 restaurants, bars and resorts last week in Cancún and Playa del Carmen, assessing sanitary compliance and suspending operations in two venues. Authorities seized more than 90 gallons of alcohol from those two venues for testing.

The sweep followed an increasing number of reports from U.S. tourists who suspected they had been drugged or served tainted alcohol. In January, 20-year-old Wisconsin resident Abbey Conner drowned while on vacation with her family at the Iberostar Paraíso del Mar,  after allegedly drinking a small amount of alcohol at the lobby bar. A different lobby bar in Iberostar's complex, Kukulkan at the Hotel Paraíso Maya, was one of the two venues temporarily shut down last week following the sweep. Kukulkan was cited for unsanitary conditions such as leaking water, the use of thermometers that weren't disinfected, ill-fitting drain covers and unlabeled disinfectants. Out-of-date and unlabeled alcoholic beverages were being served as well, and seized for testing.

In a statement, Iberostar Hotels and Resorts explained that Mexican authorities carried out inspections across five of its properties in the region, in the process examining 43 bars and restaurants. The Kukulkan bar was the only establishment that did not meet regulations and temporarily closed. (Three other Iberostar hotels, however, were cited for a lack of maintenance, cleanliness or paperwork.) "It is important to clarify that the closure of this one bar was the result of sanitary compliance," read the statement, "not related to tainted alcohol allegations. We are diligently working to resolve the issues pointed out by the inspector and expect another evaluation within the next several days so that this bar's operations can be fully restored." All other bars and restaurants at Iberostar properties remain open.
 
Authorities also suspended operations at Fat Tuesday, a bar in Cancún that was storing some alcoholic drinks in 20-liter containers with labels that didn't correspond to the original products. A variety of beverages were discovered there without expiration dates and with unauthorized packaging and incorrect labels.
 
The raid was a joint operation by the Federal Secretary of Tourism and Cofepris, the federal commission for protection against sanitary risks, in cooperation with local officials. The sweep took place in the state of Quintana Roo, home to Cancún, Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya, because it is "one of the most important destinations in the country," according to the government agencies. They intend to carry out similar operations in every tourist destination in Mexico.
 
"It is a priority of the federal government that service providers comply with sanitary regulations and guarantee the health of both domestic and international visitors," said Mexico Secretary of Tourism Enrique de la Madrid at a press conference. Álvaro Pérez, the commissioner of Cofepris, added that his agency has levied 60 million pesos (nearly US$3.4 million) in sanctions across the country for failure to comply with sanitary regulations, and it will continue to work with the tourism sector to ensure the health and safety of tourists and residents alike.
 
Hotels in the state of Quintana Roo have enjoyed an 89 percent occupancy rate during this summer season, hosting 2,293,000 visitors who accounted for more than US$1.9 billion in spend, according to Marisol Vanegas, state secretary of tourism for Quintan Roo. In voicing her support for the crackdown, Vanegas noted that strict measures of quality and service are responsible for drawing 11 million visitors annually to the region's more than 98,000 hotel rooms. The region will intensify its vigilance of food and beverages and ensure F&B employees are properly trained in how to conform with all regulations, officials added.
 
The raid led to the discovery of an alcoholic beverage manufacturer and distributor with "bad manufacturing processes" that was responsible for supplying liquor to a number of F&B venues in the region. Authorities confiscated more than 10,000 gallons of liquor from the company, but have not publicly named the business.
 
Authorities named a number of other businesses that were cited for failing to meet all maintenance, cleanliness and documentation requirements. The eight venues in Playa del Carmen are Hotel Iberostar Paraíso Lindo, Hotel Iberostar Gran Paraíso, La Chopería, Los Olvidados, McCarthy Bar, Coco Bongo, México Loco and Guy Fieri. Establishments in Cancún that were cited include Hotel Iberostar, Hooters, La Vaquita, Blue Gecko, Dady O, Señor Frogs, Crab House, Fred's House, Porfirio's Cancún, La Destilería, La Casa del Habano, Carlos 'n' Charlie's and Fat Tuesday (one of the establishments that has been temporarily shuttered).

Regarding the citations, Iberostar Hotels and Resorts maintained its commitment to hygiene. "The safety and well-being of our guests and personnel are Iberostar's top priorities," noted the company statement. "Iberostar undergoes normal routine inspections performed by [federal consumer agency] Profeco and Cofepris. In addition, external audits are conducted at Iberostar hotels on a monthly basis, which certify our diligent and responsible handling of all sanitary and hygienic measures, following federal legislation, local regulations and the standards of the Federation of Tourism Operators [now ABTA - The Travel Association] Health & Safety Technical Guide, Codex Alimentarius and HACCP [hazard analysis critical control point] system."

The publicity surrounding this particular government operation -- and what separates it from the more routine inspections -- was possibly motivated by the growing suspicion of tainted alcohol following Abbey Conner's drowning. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel launched an investigation into such allegations last month, following the newspaper's reports about Conner. According to the newspaper, nearly a dozen people contacted the paper with similar stories of blackouts and suspected tainted alcohol at resorts in Quintana Roo. Officials, however, have not reported any evidence of tainted alcohol being served.  
 
While the involvement of Mexico's tourism sector in this crackdown is relatively new -- or at least much higher profile than previously -- the existence of bootleg alcohol in Mexico is a long-standing problem. Between 2010 and 2017, Cofepris conducted more than 200 similar raids and confiscated more than 1.4 million gallons of alcohol that did not conform to federal regulations. (There can be a lot of bureaucracy involved in meeting the changing regulations, so while the confiscated liquor failed to conform with all regulations, that doesn't necessarily mean it was all dangerous or harmful.) Cofepris has announced that anyone who wishes to report irregular alcohol service or sale can contact the agency via a Mexican toll-free number or by email.

The U.S. State Department recently added a brief word of advice to its online Safety and Security section for Mexico, stating, "there have been allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out. 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 U.S. Embassy representative in Mexico City added that the Cancún area receives more than 7.3 million U.S.-citizen tourists each year, and most of those visits are incident-free. "We have reached out to local authorities and organizations to gather information on this issue," noted the representative, "in particular on federal, state and local standards for relevant health and safety inspections."