On Nov. 17, National Post reporter Stewart Bell broke the news that Mexican authorities had arrested Canadian Cynthia Vanier in connection to her work in Libya in the last days of the Gaddafi regime. On Wednesday, the Mexican government publicly acknowledged for the first time that it is holding Ms. Vanier in connection to an alleged plot to smuggle Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saadi out of Libya and in the a Mexican resort town.
Ismail Zetouny / Reuters files
Saadi Gaddafi in Tripoli in 2010
By Stewart Bell and Natalie Alcoba
After a career of working in First Nations communities such as Ipperwash and Attawapiskat, mediating conflicts over land and resources, Cynthia Vanier ventured overseas last summer and waded into the conflict in Libya.
“She’s very kind,” said Mahmod Razwan, a Libyan-Canadian who accompanied her on her visit to wartime Tripoli. “She cries when she sees certain people getting hurt and she’s really genuine when she talks to people.”
But on Wednesday, Mexican authorities offered a less humanitarian view of Ms. Vanier, naming her as the suspected ringleader of a plot to smuggle Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s playboy son Saadi to Mexico using fraudulent travel documents.
Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire told a news conference in Mexico City the Canadian had been arrested along with two Mexicans and a Danish national following an intelligence investigation called Operation Guest that began Sept. 6.
Calling Ms. Vanier the “direct contact with the Gaddafi family” and “leader of the group,” Mr. Poire said the plotters had falsified travel papers, opened fake bank accounts and purchased a property near Puerto Vallarta that was to serve as a safe house for Saadi Gaddafi.
Mr. Gaddafi and his family were to be given false Mexican identities as Daniel Bejar Hanan, Amira Sayed Nader, Moah Bejar Sayed and Sofia Bejar Sayed. The operation involved chartering private aircraft in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, Kosovo and the Middle East.
Ms. Vanier, the president of Vanier Consulting Ltd., was arrested in Mexico City on Nov. 10 on suspicion of organized crime, falsification of documents and human trafficking, he said. She was allegedly in charge of the operation’s finances, he said.
Also arrested were: Gabriela Davila Huerta, a Mexican living in the United States and the alleged contact with false document makers; Pierre Christian Flensborg of Denmark, the alleged the head of logistics; and Jose Luis Kennedy Prieto, a Mexican who was allegedly in charge of obtaining documentation.
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Mr. Poire spoke to reporters Wednesday morning, hours after the National Post reported that Saadi Gaddafi had made plans to flee to a mansion in Punta Mita, a beach resort on Mexico’s Pacific coast that is a popular destination for celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga.
An associate of Ms. Vanier’s, Gary Peters of Can/Aust Security and Investigations International in Cambridge, Ont., had approached several private security contractors offering $1,000 a day to join the team that would pick up the Gaddafis and fly them out of Libya, the Post reported. But Mr. Peters insisted the escape plan was to be carried out using genuine travel documents and with the cooperation of the Mexican government.
Those familiar with Ms. Vanier were puzzled by the allegations. According to her resume, Ms. Vanier has been providing dispute resolution services since 1992 and has mediated for a long list of First Nations, from Temagami and Caledonia to Grassy Narrows and Merritt, B.C.
“I find it hard to fathom,” said James Kada, director of operations at the Mississauga First Nation, where Ms. Vanier once helped mediate a dispute that had escalated into a blockade of the band office. “She seemed to know her stuff and was able to, I would say, to some extent help with the resolution of the problem.”
Her resume says she was a University of Toronto faculty member in the 1990s and is currently on the York University dispute resolution program faculty. It also says she is a member of the Ontario government’s Native Affairs Instant Response Team.
Phil McKee, executive director of the Ontario Hockey Federation, said the organization had retained her in the 1990s to mediate a dispute with a roller hockey association. He said at the time her name was Cyndy Elder and she worked out of Brampton, Ont.
Vanier Consulting was incorporated in 2009, according to the Ontario Ministry of Government Services. It is based in Mount Forest, Ont., about 160 kilometres northwest of Toronto. The company website identifies three employees, including Ms. Vanier.
Since then, her interests have turned more international. She joined CANADEM, an Ottawa-based non-profit group that matches humanitarian workers with international agencies seeking their expertise. Her resume says her experience included hostage negotiations in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and the Bahamas.
Following the start of the anti-Gaddafi revolt in February, Mr. Peters said he approached Ms. Vanier about a fact-finding trip to Libya. He said he knew her and had worked for her in the past. He said the purpose of the trip was to “try and expose what’s going on over there.”
The former Australian soldier assembled a security team. They contracted a Hawker 800 jet from Veritas Worldwide Security, a San Diego company run by retired U.S. Marine Gregory Gillispie. He is a partner in a holding company with two of those arrested in Mexico, Ms. Huerta and Mr. Flensborg.
The fact-finding team arrived in Tripoli on July 17.
“She spoke with all sides,” said Mr. Razwan, president of the Canadian Libyan Friendship Association. “I see that. That I swear to God. … She’s a very people person, she was welcome and also her security, Gary, was very joking.”
He said she hugged the Libyans she spoke to and told them she would relay their concerns to the appropriate authorities. “I’m just impressed actually,” he said. “She said, ‘Yes, I’ll talk to my government and the United Nations.”
Upon her return, she sent a report to CANADEM, and asked that it be forwarded to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Those who have seen it said it reflected a view the Gaddafi regime was promoting at the time, alleging that NATO and the Libyan rebels were committing atrocities.
In an email to the National Post in October, Ms. Vanier wrote: “Mr. Peters was retained to provide security and close protection for my fact finding mission in July. Saadi Gaddafi did not fund ANY of the work that I have done.
“Since I was the fact finder I have full knowledge of who my client is and can confirm that no funds have ever been provided by anyone on an asset freeze or travel ban list. As had been requested I provided a report to a branch of the Canadian Government upon my return.”
Although Mexican authorities claimed to have thwarted the Gaddafi plot, there is no indication it was ever put into motion. When Tripoli fell to the Libyan rebels, Mr. Gaddafi fled by land to neighbouring Niger, where he remains. His lawyer denied there was any attempt to violate the travel ban imposed on him by the United Nations.
Ms. Gillispie said Ms. Vanier, who still owed him $40,000 for the plane contract, had contacted him and asked to meet in Mexico City to discuss the debt. He said he sent his two partners to meet her and was “baffled” by the arrests.
“We brokered an airplane for Cyndy Vanier, that was the entirety of our business with her,” he said.
“I can see how my partners going to meet with her to get paid, and they show up and these federales [Mexican federal police] are there, I can see how circumstances would dictate that my partners get questioned or even held for a day or two.
“But for these people to be making these kinds of connections, that my partners are doing bogus passports and doing money laundering and trafficking people, this is like somebody’s reading a freaking Tom Clancy novel or something. It’s ludicrous they way they’re piecing this all together.”
At his press conference, Mr. Poire did not mention any criminal charges against Ms. Vanier or any members of the group. Mexican law allows police to detain suspects for 40 days for investigation.
Mexican security analyst Alberto Islas said the investigation was carried out by Mexico’s intelligence service, CISEN, in response to information supplied by international partners. “They acted on a ‘need to know basis’ from foreign intelligence services,” said Mr. Islas, of Risk Evaluation Ltd. in Mexico City.
Asked whether it had alerted CISEN to the alleged Gaddafi escape plan, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service declined to comment. “We cannot comment on operational activities or interests,” said CSIS spokeswoman Tahera Mufti.
Mauricio Meschoulam, an analyst with the department of international studies at the Iberoamericana University, said Mexican authorities had delayed going public with the arrests to bolster their image.
“It speaks to a government keen on playing up its ability to detect such operations, as opposed to a place where criminals can hide,” he said. “This stems from a discourse building in the United States that, due to the ungovernable reality in parts of Mexico, some international actors, particularly terrorists, could use our territory to design or plan acts against American interests.”