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Schumer asks ATF to join investigation into deaths in the Dominican Republic

DR says recent deaths are from natural causes

New York — The Senate's top Democrat said Sunday that the U.S. government should step up efforts to investigate the deaths of U.S. citizens in the Dominican Republic this year. Since the start of the year, at least nine American tourists have died while vacationing in the Dominican Republic, and questions are also being raised about several more deaths in 2018.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) should lend support to the FBI and local law enforcement on the island. Schumer noted the agency has offices in the Caribbean and the technical and forensic expertise that could aid the investigation. 

"Given that we still have a whole lot of questions and very few answers into just what, if anything, is cause for the recent spate of sicknesses and several deaths of Americans in the Dominican Republic, the feds should double their efforts on helping get to the bottom of things," Schumer said in a statement.

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The nine deaths reportedly occurred after the visitors complained of feeling ill after eating a meal or drinking out of the hotel minibar. The U.S. embassy in Santo Domingo said there is no proof at this point the deaths are linked, but family members of the tourists who died have called on authorities to investigate any possible connections. Relatives have raised the possibility that the deaths may have been caused by adulterated alcohol or misused pesticides.

ATF spokeswoman April Langwell said the Treasury Department primarily handles investigations involving potentially tainted alcohol. But she said ATF, which is part of the Justice Department, has offered its assistance and would work with other law enforcement agencies to keep Americans safe. The ATF primarily investigates firearms-related crimes but is also charged with regulating alcohol and tobacco. CBS News reached out to the Treasury Department to find out if it would assist in any investigation into the American citizen Dominican Republic deaths, but has not yet received a statement.   

Francisco Javier García, the tourism minister in the Dominican Republic, said earlier this month that the deaths were not part of any mysterious series of fatalities but a statistically normal phenomenon lumped together by the U.S. media. He said autopsies show the tourists died of natural causes.

Five of the autopsies were complete as of last week, while three were undergoing further toxicological analysis with the help from the FBI because of the circumstances of the deaths. 

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