Tatiana Mirutenko emerged happy from a bar in an upscale part of Mexico City after a night of dancing. Seconds later, the 27-year-old Chicago native was dead — hit by a stray bullet from two men on a speeding motorcycle.
Mirutenko, her husband and a group of friends had traveled to the sprawling metropolis of 21 million people to celebrate a delayed honeymoon and a first wedding anniversary in July.
They ate at Pujol and Quintonil, among the top-rated restaurants in the world, and Mirutenko texted her parents photos of the food, the ornate churches and even dogs at a local park in Lomas de Chapultepec, a privileged part of the city where billionaire Carlos Slim owns a mansion.
“She loved the culture, loved the people,” said her father Wasyl Mirutenko, who owns a security company in Chicago. He told The Post that his family had vacationed in Mexico — in Puerto Vallarta and Oaxaca — since Tatiana was a little girl.
But this time, Tatiana, a slim blonde who worked for a pharmaceutical company in San Francisco, returned home in a body bag, becoming one of the 16,399 homicides recorded in the country in the first seven months of this year, according to statistics collected by Mexican law enforcement.
Already, 2018 promises to be one of the most violent years on record in the country. Homicides shot up 16 percent during the first half of this year — a number that has been rising at an alarming rate over the last two years as splintered groups of drug traffickers and gangs battle for dominance.
Were Tatiana’s killers caught?
“I don’t really care,” Mirutenko told The Post, choking back sobs. “Whatever happens, it will not bring her back.”
In Acapulco, the once-glamorous Mexican resort town where John Wayne owned a posh hotel and newlyweds John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy frolicked in the surf on their honeymoon, tourists gingerly stepped around two dead bodies on their way to the beach.
The two men had been mown down in a barrage of gunfire on a sunny afternoon in October, and although tourists ran for cover as bullets flew, many returned to the beach minutes later. There, police had cordoned off the corpses, which lay bleeding at the entrance to a popular seaside restaurant.
Months earlier, in April, stunned beachgoers on nearby Caletilla Beach stumbled over a bullet-riddled fisherman’s body as it washed ashore. Police said he was likely killed in a fight over drugs.
Acapulco has long been known as the murder capital of Mexico. Last year, there were 953 homicides in the Pacific coast city of 700,000, up from 918 in 2016, according to police. By comparison, New York City, with a population of 8.6 million, recorded 290 murders in 2017.
Violent crime is so out of control in Guerrero state, where Acapulco is located, that last year the US State Department warned Americans to stay away. Guerrero and a handful of other Mexican states have the same Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Armed groups operate independently of the government in many areas of Guerrero,” the warning notes. “Members of these groups frequently maintain roadblocks and may use violence toward travelers.”
But despite these warnings, visitors have not stayed away from the country.
Last year, there were more than 35 million visitors to Mexico, an increase of 9 percent over the previous year, according to the Madrid-based United Nations Tourism Organization.
In October, 2018 — the last month for which statistics are available — Mexico received 688,000 visitors from the US, compared to 642,200 in October 2017, a 7 percent increase, according to data compiled by the Mexico Tourism Board.
Mexican tourism officials contacted by The Post said that they are working with law enforcement in tourist centers such as Acapulco and Cancún to ensure a greater police presence during peak tourist seasons. In Acapulco, the local government last year set up a Tourist Assistance and Protection Center — known by its Spanish-language acronym, CAPTA — where foreign tourists can report incidents and seek assistance if they are victims of a crime.
“American tourists should know that recent incidents of violence have had almost zero impact on tourists or tourist areas,” said Dario Flota Ocampo, CEO of the tourism board in Quintana Roo, the state where Cancún is located. “Tens of millions of Americans have visited Quintana Roo over the past 10 years and the vast majority of them are not involved in any sort of incidents . . . They have a great time and come back over and over again.”
Quintana Roo officials doubled down on security after five people were killed at an electronic-music festival in Playa del Carmen in January 2017. Two Canadians, an Italian and a Colombian were shot dead at the Blue Parrot nightclub. The tourists were the victims of stray bullets after a gun fight broke out among nightclub patrons.
And it’s not just bullets tourists fear. Even black-market tequila has reportedly killed tourists.
Abbey Conner, a 20-year-old University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student, drowned in a shallow pool at the Hotel Iberostar Paraiso del Mar in Playa del Carmen in November 2017 after drinking tequila shots at the all-inclusive, upscale resort with her older brother, Austin. Both blacked out at the pool, but Austin survived, waking up in a hospital room the next day with a large bump on his forehead and no memory of how he got there, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The newspaper found that dozens of tourists to Mexico had blacked out and become ill over tainted tequila. Last month, the Conner family filed a wrongful death suit in Florida against the resort and its US-based Web site operator, Visit Us, saying in court papers that the hotel knew the booze was “tainted, substandard, poisonous, unfit for human consumption.”
Mexican authorities have cracked down on the illicit alcohol and busted two distilleries churning out tequila with dangerous levels of methanol. Although it’s not known how many tourists suffered blackouts and other illnesses related to the bootleg tequila, police have confiscated tens of thousands of gallons of tainted alcohol since Conner’s death last year, according to published reports.
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But these days, in order to stay safe, travel experts warn that tourists need to be more aware.
“People really need to exercise caution and have some idea of where they are going,” said Chris Hagon, a former London cop and founding partner of IMG, a Florida-based security company that helps clients travel safely. “They also need to have in place some kind of mechanism for getting help when they need it.”
Even the savviest tourists who have traveled dozens of times to Mexico have recently found themselves in terrifying situations in a country where the cops are often so corrupt that tourists are actively discouraged from seeking police assistance if they are the victim of a crime.
In July, a 41-year-old mother from Astoria, Queens, flew to Cancún with her Mexican-born husband and two young children and barely escaped becoming a drug mule for a Mexican cartel.
The woman, who did not want to be identified, said that after leaving a high-end, all-inclusive resort in Cancún en route to Mexico City, she found that someone had placed two bags of white powder in her backpack. She discovered what she thought was cocaine when she arrived at an Airbnb in the Mexican capital and emptied out her backpack. Her husband had already returned to the US for work but was planning to meet up with her again in Mexico City, she said.
“It was scary, I was with my kids and I locked myself in the apartment. I was worried that a drug trafficker was going to barge in with guns to get the drugs,” she told The Post.
She said she worried about calling the Mexican authorities “because there’s a lot of criminal activity in Mexico, and if you don’t know who you are dealing with you can find yourself in even more trouble. You can’t trust the police in Mexico.”
Instead, she called her husband and the security firm she works for in the US. Their advice was to leave her backpack in the Airbnb and get on the first flight out of the country with her children.
“I left the backpack in the bathtub and just left,” she said.
A few days later, when her husband returned to check out of the Airbnb, the backpack was no longer there, she said.
“To this day, I don’t know what happened,” the woman told The Post. “I was either used as a decoy for someone or it was a test run for a drug delivery.”
Despite the incident, she said she plans to vacation in Mexico again.
Patricia Protage has sworn off Mexico, where her family has vacationed for years. She said she wished she had known more about the all-inclusive resort in Cancún where her 19-year-old son went on spring break three years ago.
The day after he arrived, the 185-pound rugby player found himself lying on the floor of a filthy jail cell.
“He can’t remember anything that happened after he took his first sip of his second beer,” Protage told The Post from her home in Seattle.
Protage’s son, who did not want to be identified, went to a bar with friends in Cancún’s tourist zone, said Protage.
“This is a kid who has never done drugs, and only ever drank a couple of beers,” said Protage.
The morning after his trip to the bar, he woke up in the Cancún jail cell, without his shoes and covered in sand. “There was sand in his ears, sand in his hair,” said his mother.
The local police told him that they had found him face down in a ditch and asked for $300 to spring him from jail. Although his wallet had been stolen, his mother said that the police handed him his student card and driver’s licence — necessary pieces of identification in order to pick up a Western Union money order from the US, said Protage.
“That’s the way they extort money from parents,” she said. “Funny how his wallet is missing but the police had his ID.”
Protage wired the cash as soon as she heard from a friend who had made the trip to Mexico with her son.
“We had no idea what had happened to him, and no way to communicate with him,” said Protage. “We were absolutely terrified when we heard from his roommate that he was in custody.”
Although the family called the US Consulate in Cancún, authorities told them that there was little they could do. “They said that this kind of thing happens a lot. They asked if we wanted to press charges, but we just wanted to get our son out of the country,” Protage said.
“It was terrifying and it’s happening all the time with kids who go to Mexico for spring break,” she said.
After her son paid the police the $300 in cash, he checked out of the hotel and headed straight to the airport.
“He never wants to go back there,” said Protage. “We’re the #NeverInMexico family. We travel quite extensively, but none of us will ever be going back there.”
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