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Utahn shot in drug gang cross-fire at all-gay resort week in Mexico

What was supposed to be a fancy gay getaway weekend at a five-star Mexican resort for Day of the Dead turned into a nightmare for four Utahns.

“Just wanted to say I’m very lucky to be alive and able to even write this post,” Tanner VanValkenburg of Salt Lake City wrote on his return from Mexico. “Two weeks ago I flew to Cancun, Mexico, for a vacation. On Thursday the 4th, we were sitting by the pool, and some drug dealers came in and started shooting, killing two other gang members on the beach.”

VanValkenburg wrote that the gunmen went onto the resort grounds and continued shooting.

“All of us were running for our lives. There was a pool bar we were all trying to get to for safety. As I dove into the pool, I got shot in the back mid-dive.”

He said he knew he’d been shot and went to the side of the pool, holding the wound.

“I’ll never forget those next few moments,” he continued. “As blood was coming out, I thought to myself, ‘This is it. This is how I’m going to go.’ As the gunman walked past the pool, all I could do I close my eyes and pray he did not shoot the others still in the pool hiding and in shock.”

VanValkenburg had traveled to the all-inclusive Hyatt Ziva 20 miles south of Cancun as part of an all-gay vacation run by LGBTQ vacation company, Vacaya. He was joined by his boyfriend Rod Cox and friends George Limberakis and his husband, Randy Bradshaw.

Limberakis posted that the four of them were sitting in the second row of chairs from the pool when the shooting started.

“We were directly across from the swim-up bar, which was on the opposite side of the pool. Behind us was a huge open area with another pool. Behind that was the beach, which wrapped around toward where we were sitting. Randy had just returned from getting tacos and was standing next to me. Tanner and Rod were sitting behind me. Randy and I both noticed a security guard who was walking very quickly toward the beach. We didn’t know it at the time, but, apparently, a boatload of drug gangers landed on the beach to reclaim their territory, which two rival drug dealers had invaded,” Limberakis wrote. “One rival banger was killed on the beach, as witnessed by the guys playing volleyball. A gunman walked toward the volleyballers, reportedly firing his rifle. A second rival banger was shot and ran onto the resort property. He hid in one of the buildings and, we’re told, he died there.”

“Thirty seconds after the security guard walked past us, we heard automatic weapon fire,” Limberakis continued. “At the same time, bottles placed on a shelf at the back of the swim-up bar were shattering. The four of us were directly between the shooters and the bar. Someone yelled, ‘GUN!!!’ and we all jumped into the pool. I was unclear about where to go from there, thinking it might be safest to swim back to the same side of the pool and be against the wall. I saw people climbing over the swim-up bar and disappear. Someone popped his head up from the bar and told us to follow him. Rod, Randy, and I headed for the bar.”

“As I was swimming for the bar, I turned and saw Tanner pressed against the side of the pool, below the lifeguard tower. There were two people with him. Rod and I called Tanner to follow us to the bar, but he shook his head,” Limberakis wrote. “There was no time to debate. We were in an open area and very vulnerable. I thought Tanner was doing what his gut told him to do to preserve himself, and I had to do the same.”

“I got to the bar and climbed onto it. Everything, including me, was wet and slippery. As I put my foot down on the other side of the bar, I slipped and hit the tile floor hard. Someone helped me up and led me down a narrow tunnel usually only used by the bartenders to get to the bar. It led to a cellar under the restaurant. It was tall enough for us to stand. The space was never meant to be inhabited. It was dirty and dusty. The floor was covered with debris, and we were all barefoot, wet, and in swimsuits.”

Hotel staff, who also ran to hide there, said there were three entrances to their make-shift bunker.

“We organized. There wasn’t much down there. We found a stack of aluminum poles and distributed them to be used as weapons should the shooters come looking for us,” Limberakis recalled. “One guy was wielding a pedestal sink that he found. One guy had a fire extinguisher that he pulled from the bar. One group took position near the stairs, another by the bar entrance, and a couple positioned themselves to be able to see if anyone entered from the third entrance. I examined my aluminum pole and saw that the two ends were sharp. I thought about how I’d use it and pushed away the reality that the pole would be of little use against someone with an automatic rifle.”

“We didn’t know if the shooters wanted to kill us or kidnap and hold us as hostages or if we were unimportant to what was happening,” Limberakis continued. “We waited. We listened. Some cried. One guy paced angrily, waving his aluminum pole. When we heard a sound, we all went silent and waited to see if anything would develop. After about an hour of this, someone from the hotel came down and told us that the resort was being secured by heavily armed police and that we were to go, single file, to the main lobby of the hotel. We couldn’t go to our rooms until the resort had been swept.”

“We learned later that Tanner had been shot as he was diving into the pool. As his body was horizontal in the air, the bullet hit him below his right shoulder blade and traveled up to the top of his shoulder, and remains there,” he wrote. “One of the people in the pool with him was a traveling ICU nurse. As they huddled below the lifeguard tower, the three of them saw one of the shooters, dressed all in black with a ski mask, who had walked to the edge of the pool. Either the shooter didn’t see them, or he did, and they were not what he was looking for.

The shooter left, and VanValkenburg, ICU nurse Steven Garza of Crystal City, Texas, and the others with him left the pool and went to hide in a guest building. Luckily, VanValkenburg was with a medical professional in a clean, dry place.

“Had he followed us to the bar, he would have been bleeding in the filthy cellar,” Limberakis wrote.

VanValkenburg was taken to a hospital a half-hour away and treated. When released, his doctor said he could go back to the resort to recover but not fly.

When VanValkenburg returned to the resort the following day, he was greeted by guests and staff in the lobby who applauded as he was wheeled through toward his room.

“Vacaya, our guests, and the staff of Hyatt Ziva Riviera Cancun welcome back the most grievously harmed guest from yesterday’s shooting near the resort. After getting a bit of rest tonight, he’ll be heading back home along with all other Vacaya guests tomorrow. We are so thankful to have him back,” Vacaya representatives wrote in a statement. “Vacaya can confirm there was a gang-related shooting incident near the Hyatt Ziva Riviera Cancun on November 4, and it was in no way a targeted attack on the LGBT+ community. Thankfully, there were only a few minor scrapes and bruises along the way, with the exception of one guest, who was injured. That individual is currently doing well at a local hospital, is surrounded by friends and family … We are now working hand-in-hand with our hotel partner to calm and nurture our guests.”

Drug trafficking and related violence were long uncommon on the Cancun tourist strip, part of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, and a popular destination for LGBTQ+ travelers, but gangs appear to be moving into the area.

“The closing of land borders because of COVID-19 — and the pressure from the U.S. to crack down on migrant caravans — have caused Mexico to divert thousands of troops to its southern border,” Mike Vigil, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency official, said in a statement after a fatal shooting at another resort. “The increased presence of security forces on the border with Central America has created a significant shift to Quintana Roo [the state where the Riviera Maya is located] using jet aircraft.”

The United States Dept. of State issued a travel advisory to “exercise extreme caution due to crime” as other shootings have occurred in the area and Tulum. They have not, however, issued any restrictions in travel to the area. The German government also issued an advisory for travel in the region.

As VanValkenburg recovers back home, he said this incident has left him reconsidering how he travels.

“I never in a million years thought that I would have to worry about my life sitting in a resort,” he told Good Morning America. “So it’s going to be very different now if I travel again.”

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