Dominican Republic officials downplay spate of American tourist deaths in Caribbean nation

After feeling besieged for the better part of the week by reporters covering the recent spate of American deaths in the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean island's officials appeared defiant Friday, using a news conference to downplay the deaths and castigate the media for turning the nine fatalities into "an avalanche of death."

Tourism Minister Francisco Javier Garcia accused journalists investigating the deaths of overblowing the numbers, and noted even the U.S. State Department 's figures show there hasn't been an increase in American tourist deaths for reasons other than natural causes.

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“The Dominican Republic has seen an exaggerated number of Americans in the Dominican Republic who have died,” Garcia said. “And media have taken it as an avalanche of deaths.”

At least nine Americans have died suddenly in the Dominican Republican since June 2018, and family members have recently come forward to highlight at least two other similar deaths in September 2016 and April 2018. But the news coverage has worried government officials, who fear the country's successful tourism industry could take a hit if visitors start viewing the island as unsafe.

Garcia, who assured reporters officials have “nothing to hide,” also used the Friday news conference to boast about the country’s tourism industry.

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“The Dominican Republic has a history of success with the tourism industry," he said "We are the top travel destination in the Caribbean. It is the product of the work of the people in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is a safe country.”

He added, unequivocally: “In the Dominican Republic, there are no mysterious deaths.”

But several relatives of the deceased Americans have raised doubts about the accounts Dominican authorities have given them, and many have also expressed exasperation with the U.S. State Department, which they say has played too passive a role.

In June, a New Jersey woman, Leyla Cox, died in her room at the Excellence resort after falling critically and suddenly ill, according to her family. Cox, an MRI technician, had gone on a solo trip to celebrate her 53rd birthday. With the help of the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic and his congressional representatives, her son, Will Cox, successfully got the authorities there to agree to send a vial of her blood to the U.S., where toxicology tests will soon be conducted at the New York hospital where she worked.

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Cox's family and co-workers say they do not believe that she died of a heart attack, the official cause of death.

Several relatives of those who have died are also planning to conduct their own tests in the United States. Since Dominican authorities have attributed nearly all the deaths to natural causes, they have declined to conduct toxicological tests, leading to complaints from the relatives.

At least two members of Congress this week said they would press for answers.

The FBI revealed they are testing alcohol from at least one mini-bar in at least one of the rooms at the Bahia Principe resort, where a number of guests died, the New York Post reported.

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The FBI announced their involvement last week, and are reportedly taking blood samples from the individuals who died under suspicious circumstances.

Garcia brushed off reports that there was bootleg alcohol being sold. He also criticized theories of poisonings because “if there was any ‘poisoning’ because of poor use of pesticides, then more people should have been affected.”

Fox News' Elizabeth Llorente and Anna Hopkins contributed to this report.