When Jennifer and Frank Massabki traveled to Mexico in May 2017, they had recently gotten engaged and were looking for potential locations to host their wedding later that year. But after what occurred over the next few days, they didn’t know if they ever wanted to set foot in the country again.
The couple rented a car from an American company in Mexico City and had been on the road for about an hour when another vehicle rear-ended them. When Frank got out to talk to the driver, two men with weapons descended upon them and took them hostage in their car, according to a police report filed with Mexico City officials.
The men commanded the couple to remove all of their jewelry and blindfolded Frank as the assailants drove them to a second location. “This is going to get a lot worse for you,” Jennifer recalls one attacker telling her (she and Frank are both fluent in Spanish).
The kidnappers told the Massabkis to start thinking of people to call in the U.S. for a ransom. After hours of being held hostage, several violent altercations, and a failed attempted rape, the two were able to free themselves. Frank ran and found police who returned to get Jennifer, who was hiding in a tree from her attackers.
The couple filed a police report, which MarketWatch reviewed for this story, and flew back to the U.S. for medical treatment, including an emergency surgery on Jennifer’s nose, which was broken during a fight with her attackers.
Mexican cities remain top tourist destinations
Jennifer and Frank Massabki are telling their story to caution other Americans heading to the country. Cancun and other Mexican vacation cities remain top destinations for U.S. travelers despite several safety warnings in 2017 and early 2018.
The State Department issued new “do not travel” advisories for five Mexico states following surges in gang-related violent crime in February and March. The states Americans have been strictly told to avoid are Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas. U.S. government employees are forbidden from traveling to those states due to “widespread violent crime.”
“We just want other people to know these dangers exist,” Frank Massabki said. “We were lucky to escape, and if our story can prevent one other person from going through what we went through, and what we almost had to go through, it would be worth it.”
Criminals have splintered into smaller gangs
The Massabkis believe they were able to escape in part because they are both fluent in Spanish and could understand what the kidnappers were saying. They’re also both fit and athletic, so they could make a run for it. They had both been to Mexico a handful of times over the years, but said that experience didn’t help them avoid this incident.
They are among the hundreds of people targeted by kidnappings in Mexico each year, according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), a bureau of the State Department that addresses international security. Violence is on the rise in Mexico’s central and southern states, a 2018 report from the OSAC found.
“Mexico is experiencing a combination of conditions that collectively degrade the security environment in certain areas,” the report said. “The government has had successes in capturing some of its most wanted criminals; consequently, organized criminal groups are becoming much less organized and disciplined. Various groups have splintered into smaller gangs, which have branched out into different illegal business activities, and the associated violence is spreading across Mexico.”
Kidnappings in Mexico are largely underreported
The actual number of kidnappings in Mexico is largely underreported, according to the OSAC, due to widespread belief among tourists and locals alike that “the police may be involved in the crime or are unable to resolve the situation.”
In 2016, there were 771 kidnapping cases in the country involving people connected to the U.S., according to the OSAC, including citizens, legal permanent residents and other cases in which an extortion call was made to the U.S. and police (or former law enforcement officials) have been implicated in many of these incidents.
Mexico had an estimated 30,000 homicides in 2017, according to a study published by the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego. However, few of the homicide victims are tourists, according to Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute, a nonprofit that works to improve cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.
Instead, many of these homicides are drug-related and criminal groups tend to stay away from tourists because crimes against them draw more media attention, he said.
“Mexico remains a safe country for tourists in general, and has a lower homicide rate per capita than countries such as Brazil, Jamaica or Colombia,” he said. “However travelers should always do some basic research before choosing a vacation destination and some areas of the country are more dangerous than others.”
Jennifer said she still has nightmares about the couple’s ordeal. The attackers put a hood over her husband’s head while they threatened them both. He was able to free himself while the kidnappers were distracted with Jennifer, who attacked one of the men when he attempted to rape her unsuccessfully.
They tied her up and went to look for Frank and, while they were gone, she was able to free herself and make a run for it. She climbed 20 feet up a tree and hid among the branches for several hours before Frank returned with officials later.
The U.S. State Department rates areas in terms of safety on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the least safe. States that have scores of 4, meaning they should be avoided completely due to crime are: Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas.
States to “reconsider travel” to (level 3) include Ciudad Juarez, the city of Chihuahua, Ojinaga, Palomas and the Nuevo Casas Grandes/Paquime region, and Nuevo Casas Grandes. The State Department has suggested caution in the state of Quintana Roo, which includes the popular destinations of Cancun, Tulum, and Cozumel.
For a full list of destinations, look at the State Department’s website. If you do decide to go to Mexico, here are some tips for staying as safe as possible.
- Avoid driving at night and on small roads
- Watch your drink being poured and be particularly careful at bars and nightclubs
- Keep visible signs of wealth like jewelry, watches or platinum credit cards out of sight
- Be vigilant when going to ATMs and use an ATM at your hotel or resort when possible
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency. It’s a free service offered by the U.S. government that allows travelers to enroll in their nearest U.S. embassy so they can be easily contacted in case of an emergency
- Contact the nearest embassy to report crimes