Thousands of American students have descended on the beaches of Cancun this week, where the legal drinking age is 18, and the good times seem to flow as readily as the alcohol.
One Texas A&M student offered this succinct description: "Basically, you come down, hang out for a week, get wasted for a week."
Most of the students filling the streets and beaches wear wristbands provided to them by tour companies or purchased in nightclubs. The wristbands provide unlimited access to alcohol at different establishments — all you can drink for a set fee.
Some patrons virtually collect the wristbands. "Just wake up, come to the beach, drink, eat lunch, and drink again," said 21-year-old Shawn Hakib of the University of Connecticut.
"I stop with the shots, go to mixed drinks," said Trevor Gill from Tunxis Community College in Hartford, Conn. "You know, just slow down a little bit when you feel good."
'We Just Party'
The American Medical Association says the wristbands and other such promotions glamorize alcohol and place students' lives in jeopardy.
Excess drinking also fuels riskier sexual behavior. Carrying a full bottle of tequila, Iowa State sophomore Sheena Shreck climbed on top of a bar to perform a suggestive dance routine with three other girls. At one point, she took the bottle and poured the tequila directly down her throat. "We just party," said Shreck. "Whatever happens happens."
All too often, the students who come looking for good times and parties often party to the extreme. A journal of college health found that during spring break, 50 percent of men and more than 40 percent of women drank so much that they got sick or passed out.
When American students get in trouble, they turn to the U.S. officials for help.
"It's really a nonstop merry go round of calls, visits to jails, visits to hospitals," said Glen Keiser, principal officer at the U.S. Consulate in Cancun. "You can drink and you can drink responsibly. But that's the operative word, responsible drinking. And what we've seen here is really an invitation to excess."
In the nighttime crowds, the signs of alcohol abuse are everywhere. Students are seen stumbling through the streets, or passed out in public. In Cancun alone, more than 250 students are arrested during spring break annually.
"They'll act in truly irresponsible ways," said Keiser. "They'll get into fights. They will make obscene gestures. A young man will urinate in public. They'll be tempted to go down to the beach and have sex with a friend."
And some students will end up in jail. On Tuesday night, there were three American students behind bars, two for urinating in public and one for a fistfight. They later were joined by a woman who was arrested for kicking in a wall and taking a swing at a guard.
The tourism companies that bring students to Cancun deny their promotions lead to excessive drinking. Instead, they say the real problem is the habits students develop back home.
Excessive Drinking Leads to a Fatal Fall
"Whether they are under 21 or over 21, 80 to 90 percent of them say they have experienced alcohol," said Joe Bush, vice president of the charter tour company Student Express. "So it's not something they experience for the first time coming down here and things like that."
But in Cancun and other spring break destinations, there is an unusually high number of alcohol-related deaths and injuries. "Last year and two years ago, we had several cases of head trauma," according to local emergency room physician Francisco Lopez.
On Tuesday, 20-year-old Michael Norman, a student from the University of Hartford, died after falling from a second-story balcony at a bar. He had been drinking heavily.
"There is nothing harder for us than to have to call a parent in the United States and say your son or daughter on vacation here in Cancun has died," said Keiser of the U.S. Consulate.