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The Dangers of Traveling in Mexico

This is the unedited, uncorrected transcript of the television show ABC 20/20 "South of the Border -- The Dangers of Traveling in Mexico. "  This was Part 1 which aired April 27, 1998. 

HUGH DOWNS, ABC NEWS We're about to tell you some surprising and hair—raising stories about what has happened to Americans traveling south of the border. Mexico is a favorite vacation destination from this country and for good reason. But why doesn't anybody warn you about the dangers you face there? Americans have been raped, robbed and murdered even while on vacation. Now, we know that crime is a reality for American tourists in many places. But recently, things have become a lot worse in Mexico. And tonight, Elizabeth Vargas launches the first part of her report on the dangers facing unsuspecting American tourists south of the border.

ELIZABETH VARGAS, ABC NEWS (VO) The white sands and blue waters of Mexico entice millions of Americans every year. Its beautiful beaches and warm weather are close, and vacations there are relatively inexpensive. For Stephanie Naess, a trip to Mexico City held the added attraction of meeting her boyfriend Paul's relatives.

STEPHANIE NAESS, TAXICAB CRIME VICTIM It was three days of just fun. Went hiking up the pyramids and met his whole family, and the food and the colors, and it was amazing.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) But Stephanie had no idea how easy it was to become a victim of crime in Mexico—until she and Paul did something most Americans do without thinking. They hailed a cab.

STEPHANIE NAESS We sat back. We were sort of talking about the evening. And all of a sudden, he stopped at a stop sign, and he unlocked the door. And right then, these two guys jumped into the cab. These people were holding knives. And they were very panicked. They were like, "don't"—you know, "Close your eyes, put your head down, don't move. Don't move, don't move!"

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) The goal was robbery. The couple was quickly stripped of their credit cards, cash and jewelry. But the abduction continued.

STEPHANIE NAESS And that is where my red panic light just went on, like, OK, it's been about 15 minutes. Why are they not letting us out of the car? I mean, as a woman, it crosses your mind, "Am I going to be raped? Are they going to lock me up?" And it's a horrible feeling when someone else is in total control, and there's just nothing you can do.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (on camera) The terror lasted 40 minutes, until robbers finally released the couple unharmed, but in a bad neighborhood with no money to get home. What happened to Stephanie and her boyfriend is not unusual. A 20/20 investigation reveals an alarming number of Americans are being attacked in taxies, on buses, some even on the beach. Yet most visitors to Mexico know nothing about the crimes there or how to protect themselves. (VO) Frannie Ruch was robbed in a taxi last October.

FRANNIE RUCH, TAXICAB CRIME VICTIM Two young guys jumped in in their black leather jackets. They were on our laps, and my friend is screaming. And they have knives. They were little knives, and they were—with their hands on our mouths. And they wanted our PIN numbers.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (on camera) They wanted your ATM cards?

FRANNIE RUCH They wanted our ATM card number. "PIN, PIN, PIN." That's what they kept saying. I mean, I have kindergarten Spanish. My friend had none.

ELIZABETH VARGAS Before you left, did your travel agents, anybody helping you make your travel arrangements—did anybody warn you about not getting into cabs in certain places or at certain times?


ELIZABETH VARGAS Never heard anything about that?

STEPHANIE NAESS I never did. Never did.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) What Stephanie and Frannie didn't know is that Mexico is in the midst of a massive crime wave brought on by a severe economic crisis. These are not the pictures you'll see in the travel brochures, but this is reality in Mexico these days. Local news cameras last year watched armed bandits work in the open, using their guns to stop cars so they could rob the passengers. On another street, a team of muggers operates with apparent impunity, leaving a man unconscious in broad daylight. Just 15 minutes later, the same group attacks another victim, and during it all, a police officer stands just a few yards away. In fact, widespread police corruption is a big part of the problem here, according to criminologist Rafael Ruiz (ph). (on camera) You don't know, when you're talking to a police officer, if he's clean or if he's a crook?

RAFAEL RUIZ, CRIMINOLOGIST Well, it is my bet that he is not clean.

ELIZABETH VARGAS You bet he's a crook?

RAFAEL RUIZ It is not only my bet, it is the bet of the whole population.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Mexicans might know to be wary of men in uniform, but tourists Terry Mamalis and David Forsberg had no idea. They flew into Mexico City two years ago on a low—cost, late—night flight. Their plan was to catch the first bus out to the countryside in the morning.

DAVID FORSBERG, CRIME VICTIM We didn't even leave the airport.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) The trouble started when the men wandered outside the terminal. They say a van pulled up, and men wearing police uniforms got out and started yelling at them.

DAVID FORSBERG We're looking for the bus terminal, and we're pointing our fingers asking where it was. And that's when they proceeded to push us towards the Suburban.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (on camera) What did they do? Put their arms around you and lead you?

TERRY MAMALIS, CRIME VICTIM Yeah, that's exactly what they did to him.

DAVID FORSBERG Exactly. They just put their arms right around my back and started pushing me right along.

TERRY MAMALIS I was screaming and, you know, "What's going on?" I got hit in the back of the head with a billy club.

ELIZABETH VARGAS And they overpowered you, they hit you with the billy club and forced you into the Suburban?


ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) For more than two hours, the men say they were driven around, blindfolded, gagged and forced to endure repeated beatings by five men in police uniforms who seemed to be enjoying themselves.

DAVID FORSBERG You could hear what they were saying, you know, a lot of laughter, a lot of craziness. At one point, they took my bank card out, and they were shoving it in my face. And I'd say "OK. OK, I'll give you money. I'll give you money." And that's when I would get smacked.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (on camera) How many times do you think you were beaten?

TERRY MAMALIS I'd say over 50 times.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Eventually the men say they were thrown out of the van in a rundown neighborhood, still bound and now bleeding with only the clothes on their backs. Everything else had been stolen. (on camera) In the past several years, and increasing number of Americans south of the border have been mugged, kidnapped, carjacked and worse. In Mexico, the capital city is by far the most dangerous destination. Police statistics published in a local newspaper report that in January, an average of two Americans were attacked here every day. (VO) In December, American businessman Peter Zarate was killed in a taxi robbery. And just last week, Texas Monthly magazine writer Jan Reid (ph) was shot and critically wounded. The US State Department considers the situation in Mexico City so serious it has issued a stern public announcement warning travelers never to hail taxies on the street. But when we showed that warning to dozens of American passengers at the Mexico City airport, only a few knew anything about it.

1ST TOURIST I'm concerned at this very moment.

2ND TOURIST I think we should have been warned.

3RD TOURIST I do, too. Our travel agent should have said something, I would think.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) But how many travel agents actually tell clients about dangers that might make them cancel their plans? (on camera) I'd like to get some information, please, on a trip to Mexico that I might be planning. (VO) We talked to 25 travel agents around the country, and only four warned us about taxi robberies. No one said anything about corrupt police. (on camera) Now, it's perfectly safe there? In all parts of the city? OK. (VO) Steve Louckes is the communications director for the American Society of Travel Agents, which he says represents about half the travel agents in the US (on camera) Shouldn't travel agents be telling their customers not to get into taxi cabs in Mexico City, the largest city in the world?

STEVE LOUCKES, AMERICAN SOCIETY OF TRAVEL AGENTS Certainly, if they were aware, yes.

ELIZABETH VARGAS And you're saying it's entirely conceivable that they're not aware of that?

STEVE LOUCKES It's entirely conceivable that they're not aware of every single thing, any type of event that is maybe endangering citizens.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) But here's what the US government has to say about 1998's top spring travel destination.

STATE DEPARTMENT INFORMATION LINE "Travelers should totally avoid hailing Volkswagen Bug taxies and other cabs on the street."

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) This is a recording on the information line at the State Department in Washington. Anyone can call this line, and travel agents have access to all this information in their computers.

STATE DEPARTMENT INFORMATION LINE Americans are advised to be careful when ordering beverages in local nightclubs and bars. Some establishments may contaminate or drug the drink. Americans should be cautious in using ATM cards and machines. Users are frequently targeted by criminals who have beaten victims to discover PIN numbers and then held victims until the next day to again use the card.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) On and on, the recording of what's called a "consular information sheet" describes dangers even safety—conscious Americans probably wouldn't know. For instance, luxury buses, like the one many tourists take to go from Mexico City to Acapulco, are frequently robbed. And driving anywhere at night is strongly discouraged. And in some places, even daytime travel is dangerous. 

STATE DEPARTMENT INFORMATION LINE Highway 15 and Express Highway 1 in the state of Sinaloa are particularly dangerous, where criminal assaults and murders have occurred day and night. 

ELIZABETH VARGAS (on camera) We'd like to go travel down the coast visiting all the different beach communities, is that possible to do? (VO) Even when we pressed, asking about nighttime driving in areas specifically listed as extremely dangerous, most of the travel agents we spoke to said nothing about the warnings. (on camera) Nothing anywhere? It's perfectly safe as far as you know?

STEVE LOUCKES Keep in mind that there are more than 150 different countries around the globe. The average travel agent is not going to know every single consular information sheet that the State Department has.

ELIZABETH VARGAS Where is Mexico on the list of most popular destinations?

STEVE LOUCKES Mexico is in the top five.

ELIZABETH VARGAS So shouldn't they know about Mexico?

STEVE LOUCKES They should know about the particular destinations that are most popular within Mexico.

ELIZABETH VARGAS Shouldn't they know that the State Department warns you shouldn't be traveling on the highways in Mexico at night?

STEVE LOUCKES Not necessarily.


STEVE LOUCKES Because the destinations in Mexico that most people travel to are destinations that are deemed relatively safe.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Indeed, American tourists who go to Cancun and other popular beach resorts are not often victimized. But veering off the beaten tourist path even a little bit can be extremely dangerous. Carol Schlosberg was raped and murdered last month on a beach just outside the resort of Puerto Escondido.

LINDA BAZIN, CAROL SCHLOSBERG'S SISTER She was most likely attacked, maybe put up a fight. Some people say they saw a man and woman fighting. We believe she was unconscious when she was carried or dragged into the water where she drowned.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) It was Carol's passion for vintage motorcycles that brought her to Mexico with her new love, Tim Cordz (ph). The couple had on a two—month motorcycle adventure when they decided to stay a few days at the Papaya Surf Bungalows. Tim stayed to work on the bike, while Carol went for a walk on the beach shortly after noon. It was one of her favorite things to do. Carol's brother—in—law, Jim Bazin, believes Carol was attacked because she walked alone.

JIM BAZIN, CAROL SCHLOSBERG'S BROTHER—IN—LAW Mexican women will never travel anywhere by themselves. They always go with a companion—another woman, a friend or whatever. They know better than to do that because these things do happen.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (on camera) Do you know whether or not when Carol and Tim went to Mexico, were they at all aware of any of the dangers of traveling to that country?

JIM BAZIN Did Carol or Tim ever think that taking a stroll at noon on an extremely popular tourist beach, where the Mexicans take their holidays, where their families have picnics, did they ever think that taking a stroll on this beach would end up in an attack, sexual violation and then an intentional drowning? Of course not.

STEVE LOUCKES You, as a traveler, have a responsibility to protect yourself. You should try to gather as much information as you possibly can. And it's as simple as just saying to your travel agent, "What information can you provide me that the State Department provides you about Mexico?"

HUGH DOWNS But bad things can happen even to tourists who carefully inform themselves of the dangers they face south of the board. Friday, Elizabeth Vargas will be back with the second part of her report. (VO) What happens when you do become the victim of a crime like what happened on this road in Guatemala? Most of us expect the American embassy to come riding to the rescue. But listen to what happened after this woman was shot by bandits and her father went looking for help.

ELIZABETH VARGAS So you called the consulate at what time?

VICTIM'S FATHER It would have been around 10:30.

ELIZABETH VARGAS Ten thirty at night, and they told you to come back tomorrow morning?

VICTIM'S FATHER Yes, that was the outcome of it.

HUGH DOWNS (VO) Don't expect much help if you do get into trouble. And why doesn't the US government do more to keep you out of harm's way. (on camera) Well, Friday, we continue our 20/20 investigation. A report that no tourists should miss. 

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