Canadian jailed in Mexico claims 'abuse and torture'

A Canadian woman jailed in Mexico on suspicion of leading a conspiracy to smuggle members of slain Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's family into the country says she has been tortured and abused during nearly three months in custody.

'I thought I was going to die in there,' Cyndy Vanier writes in letter

Cyndy Vanier has been held without charge since Nov. 10 on accusations she led a plot to smuggle members of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's family into Mexico.

A Canadian woman jailed in Mexico on suspicion of leading a conspiracy to smuggle members of slain Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's family into the country says she has been tortured and abused during nearly three months in custody.

In a six-page letter obtained by CBC News, Cyndy Vanier documents a string of alleged abuses she claims she has endured since Nov. 10 while being detained in Mexico City's Centro de Arraigos detention centre.

A Mexican judge Tuesday night ordered Vanier and three co-accused remain in jail for up to 10 more days while authorities decide whether they should be charged. The group has already been held for more than 80 days under Mexico’s "preventive arrest" laws while authorities investigate what they have called an international plot to forge travel documents and smuggle surviving members of the Gadhafi family to a home on Mexico’s Pacific coast. 

Interior Minister Alejandro Poire accused Vanier in December of being the ringleader of the alleged plot. The other accused are:

  • Gabriela Davila Huerta, a Mexican living in the United States, accused of plotting to obtain bogus travel documents.
  • Pierre Christian Flensborg, of Denmark, accused of planning logistics.
  • Jose Luis Kennedy Prieto, a Mexican, accused of obtaining bogus documentation.

Violence, legal abuses

Vanier, a mediator from Mount Forest, Ont., sat down in January with a Mexican human-rights monitor and on a Spanish-alphabet computer keyboard drafted a list of abuses she claims she’s endured, including some that have been verified by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs.

In the document obtained by CBC News, Vanier recounts how she and her husband travelled to Mexico in the fall to begin a six-month winter vacation at a condo she owns in Bucerias. Last July, she travelled to Libya on a fact-finding mission for SNC-Lavalin, the huge Montreal-based engineering firm.

Vanier says she travelled to Mexico City in early November for business meetings to introduce a client  — CBC News has confirmed it was a representative from SNC-Lavalin — to contacts in Mexico about potential water-purification projects.

While driving up to the St. Regis Hotel in Mexico City, Vanier writes, she was surrounded by 12 men and women in suits demanding to know whether her name was "Cynthia MacDonald" [her maiden name].

"I was confused and scared. My friend Gabby [co-accused Gabriela Davila Huerta] asked them what this was about as I do not speak Spanish," Vanier writes in the letter. "I thought I was being kidnapped. They demanded that I go with them to the police station for questioning."

Vanier claims she was held for hours without even a bathroom break, and denied a chance to call a lawyer or the Canadian Embassy.

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"They kept me there for several hours … and started asking me questions about my work, my trip to Libya in July and who I was and accused me of being a terrorist … I was shocked and scared …and again asked to make a call home."

Hours later, Vanier writes, she spotted her friend Gabby while being transported to jail.

"I tried to yell out the open window … and as I did, one of the female officers struck me with her elbow on the lower right side over the kidney. I could hardly breathe, it hurt so much … I started to cry … and they laughed at me.

Cyndy Vanier's parents, John and Betty MacDonald, say their family needs 'to get whatever help we can get from wherever we can get it.' ((John Nicol/CBC News))

"I was in a lot of pain, and when they finally let me use the washroom, I was bleeding when I urinated … I knew this was due to the elbow … my back hurt, and I felt the swelling over my kidney … I tried to tell the doctor at the Camerones that I was in trouble with the kidney … they ignored me and just put me into the cell … I thought I was going to die in there."

Vanier’s complaint has been delivered to jail officials and prosecutors as well as Canadian Embassy officials in Mexico City and Ottawa. It lays out nine alleged breaches of international conventions on human rights, including claims she was denied access to a lawyer, access to the Canadian Embassy, incarcerated without proof, denied adequate medical treatment and subjected to "physical abuse and torture."

Foreign affairs officials in Ottawa acknowledge they’ve received Vanier’s letter. John Babcock, spokesman for the minister of state of foreign affairs, told CBC News that Canada is aware of Vanier’s allegations and has raised her health concerns with Mexican officials. 

'Serious allegations'

Babcock also acknowledged it took Mexican officials five days to notify Canada after they arrested Vanier.

"This is an ongoing investigation and Ms. Vanier faces very serious allegations, which are the equivalent of charges in Mexico: specifically, falsification of documents, human trafficking and participating in organized crime," Babcock wrote in an email.

"Canadian officials are providing her with consular assistance and consular information has been provided to Ms. Vanier’s husband, whom she has authorized to receive personal information. However, Canadians travelling abroad are subject to the laws in the countries they visit."

Her parents say they’ve known about their daughter’s complaints for weeks and have kept details of them secret for fear it would jeopardize her treatment by prosecutors and the judicial system.

"That’s why we’ve been so upset," her mother, Betty MacDonald, told CBC News, "because we’ve been aware of that for a while and unable to talk about it publicly for fear there was even more physical abuse. But now that she’s moving on [to a new prison for up to10 days], the gloves are off. We just need to get whatever help we can get from wherever we can get it."

MacDonald also said any work the Canadian Consulate has done on her behalf has not been effective. She would like consulate affairs to tell them what they can do to help, not what they can't do. But she acknowledges that the consulate has sent Mexican authorities what she calls "constant emails which are never answered."

Cyndy's father, John MacDonald, said Ottawa should be publicly denouncing Mexico for his daughter’s treatment, given consular officials are kept closely informed.

"I want to be very careful," he said. "I don’t know if it was an accident, if it was deliberate. But at least she was injured, she was hurt. And as she said in her statement there she was actually peeing blood at one point and getting no attention until that happened. I mean these are serious things and no one should have to go through this."