U.S., Mexico Mostly Silent About Deaths of American Tourists South of the Border

By Penny Starr | November 25, 2008 | 6:45 PM EST

Nolan Webster, right, and his older brother Ryan (Photos courtesy of the Midlock and Webster families)

(CNSNews.com) – Almost six years after her 8-year-old son Brent was sucked into a drainage pipe and drowned in a swimming pool at a Mexican resort, Nancy Midlock is still trying to find closure. For Maureen Webster, who treated her 22-year-old son Nolan to a trip to Mexico as a college graduation gift two years ago, the cause of his death near a shallow resort pool is still unresolved.
But both women have transformed their personal tragedies into a cause to make sure their children did not die in vain. They want Mexican authorities to investigate the cases of Americans who die in that country.
According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 1,300 Americans have died in Mexico in the past six years. Midlock and Webster want the U.S. government to warn Americans that vacationing south of the border can involve life-threatening risks not printed on glossy travel brochures.
“I’ve never heard one person say they were sorry,” Webster told CNSNews.com. “That’s the most frustrating part. Nolan is not going to be a freakin’ number on that State Department list. He’s going to be a reason for change. He’s going to be the reason that it isn’t all going to get pushed under the carpet any longer.”
“I am committed to saving lives,” Midlock told CNSNews.com. “Every time I read of a life that’s been taken in such a senseless manner, it breaks my heart, because I’m not driven by failure. I am driven by success and making a difference in this world, and it’s not happening. Our government and the Mexican government are making the issue more convoluted so they don’t have to do anything about it.”
Mom activists
In fact, Nancy Midlock and Maureen Webster have become activists, including meeting with Mexican and U.S. officials. Both launched Web sites, Midlock to pay tribute to her son and warn others by sharing horrific details of his death and the recovery of his broken body. Webster’s Web site, www.mexicovacationawareness.com, details the accidental deaths of dozens of tourists, many at resort properties, from the United States and other countries.
Both U.S. and Mexican officials are aware of the cases of Brent Midlock and Nolan Webster, although neither will comment directly on their deaths, the state of any investigations into their deaths or exactly what the U.S. government has done to resolve their cases.
When asked by CNSNews.com about Brent and Nolan and what the State Department does to help families like the Midlocks and Websters, the State Department’s Consular Affairs spokesman said, “Since the laws of a host country prevail, we work with the authorities of a given country to bring closure for families upon the deaths of their loved ones,” including “obtaining a list of local attorneys who speak English.”

Brent Midlock during his last soccer season (Photos courtesy of the Midlock and Webster families)

“Consular Affairs cannot, however,” the spokesman said, “investigate crimes, provide legal advice or representation in court, serve as official interpreters or translators, or pay legal, medical or other fees.”
The same spokesman also told CNSNews.com that they would not provide any details the State Department might have on the cases of Brent and Nolan.
“We cannot comment on any specific overseas death case involving American citizens,” the spokesman said.
The State Department told CNSNews.com that privacy concerns keep officials from discussing specific cases of Americans who died from non-natural causes in Mexico – a fact that Midlock and Webster said doesn’t make sense, given that both families have spoken out publicly about their sons’ deaths, including to news media and on their Web sites.
In fact, Midlock spent more than two years lobbying the State Department to change its reporting on the non-natural deaths of U.S. citizens abroad to include the specific location where an individual died, including, if it applies, the name of the resort where the death occurred, and to add more details on the circumstances of the death.
Now, Brent Midlock is the only death listed in the State Department’s eight years of reports to include those details: “Grand XCaret Hotel Playa Del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Drowning-Mexican report indicated negligence; pool did not meet safety standards.”
Words, not actions
Although the Midlocks and the Websters and hundreds of other American families that have lost loved ones in Mexico think that justice has not been served, there is a paper trail of letters sent between U.S. and Mexican officials offering condolences and urging action be taken to prevent more tragedies.
“I want to assure you that the Bureau of Consular Affairs will continue to work on behalf of Brent and your family to inform American citizens of potential dangers when traveling in a foreign country,” Maura Harty, former assistant secretary for consular affairs at State, wrote in a letter to Nancy Midlock in May 2007.
“We are continually working to improve our outreach program to reach as many Americans as possible with the hope that tragedies like the one that your family has experienced can be prevented,” Harty added.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) wrote to the Mexican ambassador to the United States in 2005 and 2007 on behalf of Brent Midlock’s family, expressing his concern about the safety of Americans who visit Mexico.
In 2007, Mexico’s Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan wrote to both Durbin and the Midlocks, assuring them that Mexican authorities were making sure that safety standards were enforced.
“It is in the best interest of Mexico to increase its safety standards if it wants to be one of the world’s premier vacation destinations,” Sarukhan said in his letter to Durbin.
Webster’s Web site – which details some of the gruesome deaths of American tourists in Mexico, including a 16-year-old who fell down an open elevator shaft and a 34-year-old man who Mexican authorities said fell from a balcony but whose family believed he was beaten to death at the resort where he was staying – got the attention of Eduardo Chaillo.
Chaillo’s job as the U.S. director of the Mexico Tourism Board is to increase the number of Americans who visit his country, which he estimated is about 11 million a year.
“We have to improve every day,” Chaillo, who has met with Midlock and Webster, told CNSNews.com. “Of course, we have to be very sensitive and helpful.”
More than numbers
But despite the rhetoric by Mexican and American officials, in the six years since the State Department started publishing  reports on the non-natural deaths of  U.S. citizens abroad (Oct. 2002 to June 30, 2008), more than 1,300 Americans have died in Mexico.
From July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2008, Mexico accounted for 29 percent (637 people) of Americans who died abroad, ahead of Iraq (105) and Thailand (68).
And the State Department told CNSNews.com that it does not track these cases, so officials cannot say if any of them resulted in arrests, prosecutions or convictions. This despite its detailed 2007 report on human rights in Mexico, which includes names, dates, and information on the kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of Mexican citizens, police corruption, poor prison conditions and the plight of political prisoners.
The State Department does issue travel alerts for Mexico, and tips for Americans traveling abroad. But while the general comment is made that safety standards in Mexico are not the same as in the United States and that many areas of the country pose danger for tourists, under the heading “resorts” no mention is made of possible hazards.
Nancy Midlock, Brent’s father, and his two older sisters, who live in Illinois, are still struggling with Brent’s death. When his 8th grade class held a graduation ceremony in the spring, they included a tribute to Brent, who would be 14 today.
“They all said something in a video how he had affected their lives,” Midlock said.
Webster, Nolan’s father, and his younger brother, who live in Massachusetts, also remain stunned at his death on what was supposed to be the vacation of a young lifetime.
Both Midlock and Webster told CNSNews.com that while they want closure on the death of their sons, their most important goal is sparing another family the anguish they have experienced.
“I don’t want anyone to have to live like this,” Midlock said. “This is an existence of hell now.”
“What I would ultimately like to see happen is, if you are booking a trip to a country that has a travel warning or a travel alert, that it would be the law for the travel agent or tour operator to make you aware of it,” Webster said.
Both the Midlock and Webster families are pursuing legal action against the resorts where their sons died, but no progress on those actions has been reported.