Spring breakers caught up in transportation turf war in Cancun

A group of suburban high school students and their families say they felt like they were being held hostage when they found themselves in the middle of a spring break stand-off in Mexico.

“We booked a vacation through the Dreams hotel and it wound up being a nightmare,” parent Sherri Adams told WGN Investigates.

Adams was part of a group of nearly 70 Hinsdale Central High School students, parents and siblings who went on a senior year spring vacation trip to Cancun in March. This vacation was not coordinated by the high school.

Problems popped up soon after they booked an evening excursion to Señor Frogs. They chartered several vans through Amstar, a company with sales representatives in the hotel lobby. As the group departed the hotel and exited a second security gate that protects the resort area, they say their vehicles were surrounded.

“All of a sudden there are 50 cabs blocking us in – stopped in front of us – they’re not letting us go,” said parent Donna Mittelstadt. Parents say the cabbies had machetes in their hands and immediately began threatening the group.

“I looked out the window and actually watched these cab drivers slashing the tires with machetes,” Adams recalled. A witness said panic set in on the vans and several kids were crying.

Parents used their cells phones to call police and the hotel. But the stand-off didn’t end for 45 minutes. At one point drivers locked the families in the vans. They say they saw police officers sharing cigarettes with the cab drivers before allowing the taxis to leave. Cancun police are investigating the incident, but have not said whether anyone was arrested or charges were filed.

The Hinsdale group would later learn they had found themselves in the middle of a turf war. It’s ensnared other Cancun visitors as well. Last year a tourist from Canada posted on Trip Advisor: “We were held captive for a half hour… as they argued over who should be driving us back.” In both cases, travelers say police responded but didn’t do much.

“We saw them standing on the sidewalk sharing cigarettes with the cab drivers,” Adams told WGN Investigates.

In response to what happened to the Hinsdale Central high school students and their families, the Mexican Consul in General in Chicago said in a statement: “The Consulate regrets the incident, which seemed to have taken place as a result of a local labor dispute.”

Cancun tourism officials went a step further. In a statement to WGN Investigates, the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau said the state in which Cancun is located has a homicide rate “half” of Chicago’s murder rate.

The bigger threat south of the border is the ongoing drug war. The State Department issued a travel warning for Mexico in 2016.

While it notes most tourist areas are safe, U.S. government personnel are prohibited from traveling to Acapulco. In Mazatlan, the State Department says travel should be limited to between the town center and the airport.

When asked if she would return to Cancun, Adams said she would not.

“Not after that. Especially after I saw the police had no authority,” she said.

Another parent said this experience has her family re-thinking future travel plans. “We have two more children going on senior breaks. We will not be going back there,” Mittelstadt responded.

The company that coordinated the excursion said it is concerned about the incident. “As soon as this incident was reported to our customer service representatives, they provided full assistance to the group of tourists,” Amstar spokesperson Alan Edwards told WGN Investigates. Amstar says it is also processing refunds for the families.