Gabrielle Vega thought a travel abroad program would be the perfect way to kick off her college experience.
She was 19 years old and about start college at the Florida State University in the spring of 2014.
But with months until she had to buckle down and start her studies, Vega decided to spend some time connecting to her family roots in Spain.
She asked other students what programs they thought were the best and consistently heard one name — Discover Excursions.
Vega told Dearly:
“I looked them up and they seemed pretty popular. They had tons of great reviews and people had been going there for years, so I thought it was perfect. But I was very wrong.”
Vega started her trip in Salamanca, Spain with around 200 other students in the program, who were primarily female Americans.
That was Discover Excursions’ “target demographic,” she said.
After befriending some of the girls in her study abroad group, Vega decided to travel with her new friends and Discover Excursions to Morocco.
That’s where her troubles began.Gabrielle Vega/Provided
Vega was put up in a decent hotel and given a room with two friends she’d met in Spain.
The side trip went fine until the final night, when the girls decided to celebrate their travels abroad.
They wanted to go out for drinks, but were told it wasn’t safe to leave the hotel at night. This was nothing uncommon, Vega said:
“We were all told it wasn’t safe to go out at night. You know because it’s a third world country and we were women. They told that to pretty much everyone.”
Vega and her friends went up to the hotel bar where they were met by their lead tour guide, Manuel Blanco Vela. She said Manuel had come off as “charismatic and really sweet” during their time in Spain and Morocco.
So the girls didn’t didn’t hesitate when he suggested getting some champagne and heading down to their hotel room.Gabrielle Vega/Provided
Vega told Dearly:
“You have the whole buddy system, you know? I never thought he was dangerous. It was him, me, and two other girls. I thought it was just a hang out.”
Manuel ordered champagne and they all gathered in the girls’ hotel room. When it arrived at their door, the tour guide volunteered to divvy up the drinks.
Vega said she realized later that this was most likely the moment Manuel took an opportunity to slip unknown drugs into their drinks. She explained:
“Me and the two girls were sitting on the bed and he was standing up with his back turned to us, over at the dresser pouring champagne. That’s when I think he put drugs in the drinks.”
What happened next is a blur for Vega.
She remembers Manuel asking to play a “sexual” game of Truth or Dare.
Then, after a second glass of of champagne, the 19-year-old started to feel “weird” and passed out on a cot in the room.
She can only recall bits and pieces from later in the night— like stumbling into the bathroom to find her roommates and Manuel partially unclothed in the shower.
But Vega says that she remembers the moment of her alleged rape very clearly.
It happened when she was sitting alone in a haze of drugs on the toilet. Manuel burst in and forced himself into her mouth. Vega told Dearly:
“I saw his underwear, his crotch, coming towards me and then he put himself into my mouth. Then he hit me and I fell to the ground. That’s what I remember from the assault.”
Vega told the other girls what happened and asked them what they could remember from that night. One girl also had few memories, leading Vega to believe that she was also drugged.Gabrielle Vega/Provided
But the other girl told Vega that she remembered the tour guide locking himself in the bathroom with the helpless teen for 30 minutes.
When Vega asked why the girl didn’t stop him, she said that Manuel had tried to force himself onto her first.
So Vega reached out to a friend who had recommended using Discover Excursions, only to be told that she was the one that had “made a mistake.”
After that, Vega kept her secret locked inside. She told Dearly:
“So I just repressed it. I was like okay, well, I guess I did make a mistake and I just wanted to ignore it.”
Vega didn’t tell her parents what happened to her that night in Morocco until two years later. By then, she’d developed PTSD and dropped out of school.
At that point, she didn’t pursue legal action because she didn’t think anything would be done, and she definitely didn’t think he was doing the same thing to other people.
But all of that changed in January 2018, when she agreed to help a friend out by participating in an art project in which she recorded her voice talking about the assault.
“All I said was, ‘I went to Morocco and was raped by a tour guide.'”
The friend got back to her a week later and revealed that she also knew someone who was assaulted during a study abroad trip.
And she immediately brought up a familiar name — Discover Excursions.Gabrielle Vega/Provided
The friend said that the girl had traveled with the company in 2017 and that a tour guide had “done something to one of the girls.” Vega said:
“I was like, was it a guy named Manuel? And she sent me a picture and I sent a similar one of his face back, and we both came to the realization that he’s still doing this.”
Vega knew that she needed to share a warning on Facebook to find out if any other women who went through the same thing were hiding their experiences.
And sure enough, there were. Vega said:
“I panicked and then I started posting on Facebook. Within two days I found eight other girls.”
But deep down she knew that there had to be more women. So in April, Vega went on “Meghan Kelly Today” to tell her story.
And within a few days, more than 50 women contacted her claiming they too were attacked while traveling with Discover Excursions.
Out of all 50 or so women, only two had filed police reports. The women, Carly Van Ostenbridge and Hayley McAleese, appeared on the show with Vega. They were allegedly assaulted by Manuel in 2017.Gabrielle Vega/Provided
However, little came of their reports due to legal complications.
They were told that because the attacks happened to Americans in Portugal and it was reported in Spain, there was little chance of prosecution.
But now that they’ve found each other, many of the women are coming together to pursue legal action, Vega said.
She hopes that their story will inspire other women to speak out about their own assaults, and has a message to those going on travel abroad trips or their own:
“Just trust your intuition. If someone gives you a bad feeling — don’t ignore it.”
Vega has since gotten help for her PTSD and later returned to school. She recently graduated with an arts degree.
And it seems sharing her story is already starting to make an impact.
Discover Excursions has since shutdown, said Vega. Though it appears their website is still up and running.
Vega said she later discovered that Manuel himself is the company’s owner.
Dearly reached out to Discover Excursions for comment and will update with any response.