KAYSVILLE — What was supposed to be a relaxing vacation for a Utah family last month took a scary detour to a Mexican jail because of some over-the-counter Sudafed pills.
Jessica Carver and her husband, Jordan, landed March 28 at the airport in Puerto Vallarta and was about to head with family to a resort when they were randomly flagged by customs agents.
“They looked through our bags, and she was going through my purse and found my Sudafed,” Jessica Carver said.
The Kaysville woman said she only had seven or eight pills in the original packaging. A few minutes later, a man told them the pills were a “substance that’s not allowed in Mexico,” Jordan Carver said.
“At that point, I didn’t think I’d have to go anywhere else,” Jessica Carver said. “I was like, ‘Oh, it will be a couple hours.’”
What ensued was a roughly 24-hour ordeal that included jail time for the woman.
Family members were told by an airport official to procure a doctor’s note or prescription, but then were not allowed to hand the document through security, the Carvers said.
Jessica Carver said she was detained for about seven hours at the airport — a time during which she refused to sign documents written in Spanish that amounted to her admitting she knew she was doing something illegal.
After she was told she was going to be taken and detained further at the district attorney’s office, things got physical, the Carvers said.
“Two other guys came up and grabbed me and threw me down on the chair," Jordan Carver recalled, "while two other girls grabbed Jessica and were yanking her out of her chair.”
Jessica Carver said the exchange left her arm sore the next day.
The Carvers said they were transported around midnight to a building in the city that contained several holding cells.
“It just felt sketchy, uncomfortable,” Jessica Carver said.
"They said, 'We have a cell in the basement. It's cold. Go get her a jacket,'" Jordan Carver said.
Jessica Carver said she spent most of that night alone, under the watch of a single guard.
“It felt like a really long time,” she said. “It was disgusting. He took me down there, and it was your typical jail.”
Family members, meanwhile, were reaching out to everyone they could in hopes of resolving the situation, including Utah elected officials, attorneys and local leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The couple said they believed outside pressure ultimately helped resolve the situation faster and at less expense to the family.
Still, Jessica Carver said she was escorted by local authorities the following morning to visit a doctor, hours before she was to be free again.
“My examination consisted of: ‘How much do you weigh? Do you have any tattoos? Do you have any scars? Are you sick?’” she recalled.
Negotiations between local authorities, an official from the U.S. Consulate and an attorney retained by the family ultimately resulted in Carver’s release, the couple said.
The attorney required a $1,500 cash payment, according to the family.
“We were floored and we were dumbfounded that this had happened because of the Sudafed,” Jessica Carver said. “I didn’t feel like I did anything wrong, and it was just frustrating. We felt like we had no rights.”
At the end of the process, the Carvers said an official asked them if they’d like the Sudafed back, and then were told they could buy more at the pharmacy on the corner.
A video taken by a family member shows that comparable products could be easily purchased at the resort.
An official with the Mexican Consulate in Salt Lake City said the office dealt primarily with issues involving Mexican nationals detained in the U.S., but supplied a link to a list of prohibited substances that did not appear to contain the active components of Sudafed.
A Utah-based travel agent and a Latino community leader who had made numerous trips to Mexico both said Tuesday they had never heard of travelers being detained for over-the-counter Sudafed pills.
Representatives with the U.S. State Department and its Bureau of Consular Affairs could not say immediately if they were aware of cases similar to that of the Carvers, but they said they would look further into the matter.
A State Department official also encouraged all to know ahead of time regulations and restrictions in the countries to which they travel, and directed would-be travelers to the travel.state.gov website.
The couple said they believe what happened to them amounts to a scam on tourists, and they pointed to other recent cases where visitors to Mexico have had to pay out thousands of dollars to free themselves.
According to a report by CBS Chicago, a man was traveling to Puerto Vallarta with his fiancee on March 4 when Mexican authorities checked his baggage. They found Wal-Phed nasal decongestant tablets and told him it was a controlled substance and threw him in jail for 24 hours. After his fiancee contacted an attorney, he was released after paying $2,500.
The Carvers say they're sharing their story in hopes of preventing others from finding themselves in a similar situation.
“I know that some of the other cases got off way worse than we did,” Jessica Carver said. “Take one pill on the airplane, and then don’t bring any others because it was ridiculous.”