Cyndy Vanier and Gabriela Davila Huerta are the odd couple of Cell No. 5.

The co-accused in a plot to smuggle the son of Moammar Gadhafi and his family into Mexico are both accustomed to flying in private planes, and are just on either side of age 50, but they have little else in common other than the three-by-five metres of concrete they share in this women's prison in Chetumal at the southern tip of Mexico.


Cyndy Vanier is being held in Chetumal women's prison. (Dave Seglins/CBC)

Davila Huerta is a brown-eyed, dark-skinned former dancer originally from Mexico. Until last November she was living in a posh neighbourhood of San Diego, known at one of her jobs as a real estate agent for wearing Prada shoes and toting Gucci bags.

The other is a quick-talking mediator from Mount Forest, Ont., a blue-eyed woman with a touch of grey on the edges of her auburn hair. During the last few years Vanier settled disputes flying in and out of native reserves in Canada, and in her last assignment she got used to making $5,000 a day on what has become an infamous job in Libya.

Their ages and the fact that they have money earn them a bit of respect among their fellow inmates in this minimum security prison. When asked if they have made any friends during their five months of incarceration, Davila Huerta looks insulted by the question.

She lists off the heroin smuggler, the woman who tried to blow up a cruise ship, the nanny who mutilated and killed a six-year-old girl after she got fired by the mother for sleeping with the girl's father. And then there's the woman who claims she came willingly to this prison so she can kill another inmate who snubbed a drug cartel.

"Cyndy and I have to avoid some people here," says Davila Huerta, looking furtively around the stone and dirt courtyard that surrounds their one-storey cell block. The one person they can't avoid each day is the schizophrenic woman who is locked in her stench-filled cell around the clock, at the exit to their block.

"Be prepared to get depressed," says Vanier, before guiding some visitors past a woman blathering unintelligibly at the bars of her cell. "She shouldn't be here. She should be in a mental institution."

Minimum security luxury

Compared with most cells, theirs is a penthouse. Former inhabitants have covered the bars with magazine pictures of men and religious icons, and a blanket hides the bars of the cell door, so it looks like a room with three stone slabs for beds.

Because their past cellmate has moved on, only two of the slabs are covered by thin mattresses. Two nooks include a tiny bathroom and a phone-booth sized kitchen where they keep the fruits and vegetables Vanier's husband Pierre brings in on Tuesday, Thursday and weekend visits.

"They bring out the food in pails," says Vanier, "the same pails you do your wash in, so it isn't very appetizing. The spaghetti has some things in it that are of unknown origin, so we avoid it."

They make their own food, or they can order food from the men's side, which has businesses run by the inmates. It's the luxury of a minimum-security prison, but you crave luxuries and little benefits in jail.

They are teased by the tops of palm trees lazily swaying above the barbed-wire encrusted, 10-metre-high walls, the kites flown by boys in a neighbouring field, hawks soaring freely above and the ever-present sunshine. When it is blistering hot and the wind dies down, they are swarmed by tiny flying pests, not to mention intrusions by the odd snake and tarantula. On days like that they rely on the large fan in their cell, and hope the power doesn't go out.

But the biggest treasure each inmate has is a small stone. It's for the broken receiver in the payphone, to keep the conversations going on their collect calls to the outside world.

When asked about their predicament, and the loved ones on the outside — for Vanier, two children and her parents, and for Gabriela a bipolar child who must remain in an institution while she is incarcerated — tears are never far from their eyes.

What Vanier and Davila Huerta cherish most about their homes, respectively, in Mount Forest and San Diego, is the justice system where there is a presumption of innocence.

"Here they treat you like you're guilty, and you have to prove your innocence," says Vanier, who is seeking an appeal, and a human rights hearing, even before she faces trial for her alleged crimes.

While she awaits her freedom, she spends her days writing, making calls, and seeking out the prison's feral kittens.

"I've lost a lot," she says, fighting back tears. "My family has suffered, as have all of our families. My bank accounts have been closed. They can take anything I have, but they will never get my soul.

"There are people who love and support me. Look forward to greeting them when I get home, and I'll rebuild when I get home."