From a Mexican jail, Canadian professes her innocence in Gadhafi plot

MONTREAL AND PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO — The Globe and Mail

Cynthia Vanier, a Canadian accused of trying to smuggle Mr. Gadhafi’s son, Saadi, and his family into Mexico. (Handout photo)

A year ago, Cynthia Vanier was a Canadian mediator at the pinnacle of her peacemaking craft. Speaking now from the prisoners’ phone in her Mexican jail, she struggles to explain how war landed her in such a place.

First came the e-mail from her former bodyguard – who was also a bodyguard for Saadi Gadhafi – asking if she was watching the growing strife in Libya. Then, a phone call from a mysterious Libyan-Canadian who was ready to raise big money for a mission to his strife-torn homeland. Finally, the lucrative negotiations with a top executive at the Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin that would net her the consulting contract of a lifetime.

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By July, 2011, Ms. Vanier was on a private jet headed toward North Africa for a fact-finding mission that would put her in contact with top officials of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, and would eventually land her in prison accused of trying to smuggle Mr. Gadhafi’s son, Saadi, and his family into Mexico.

“I am pretty heartbroken that this has happened. I am pretty disappointed the Canadian government hasn’t stepped up to the plate to be more supportive. Usually I am the one on the outside trying to help people, not on the inside trying to find my way out. It’s pretty tough,” said Ms. Vanier in her first public comments since she was arrested in November.

Ms. Vanier’s case sets two irreconcilable stories against one another. Mexican authorities say she is the ringleader of an international plot to smuggle the playboy son of the fallen Libyan dictator to Mexico along with his wife and two children.

Ms. Vanier maintains she had nothing to do with any Mexican plot, but leaves it to her family to offer more detailed explanations. A reporter from The Globe and Mail took part in the conversation on a recent Friday when Ms. Vanier telephoned her parents in Canada from prison. She talked about how she came to be involved in providing the Libya report, but refused to address the Mexican charges, saying she did not want to put her legal defence at risk.

In Ms. Vanier’s life as a mediator in Canada, there were few problems she could not resolve, usually netting her a tidy cheque in the end. She settled a conflict between the Attawapiskat First Nation and the De Beers diamond mining company, one of many interventions she conducted in native communities from Caledonia, Ont., to Merritt, B.C. She even once helped the Ontario Hockey Association settle a bill with an inline-skate hockey league.

Ms. Vanier, 52, came to mediation in mid-career while she was a manager at Air Canada. After taking courses on the topic, she quit her job, built a new business and became a frequent keynote speaker at conferences. Settling disputes earned her a living that allowed her a house in Brampton, Ont., and a second home in Mexico.

At Ms. Vanier’s Brampton home there was a big-screen TV and a pool table for her children, a son and a daughter now grown. She long held a private box at the arena of the local junior hockey team. She wouldn’t think twice about shelling out $4,000 for a corporate outing to play her favourite sport, golf.

Ms. Vanier purchased a $590,000 home on the beach near Puerto Vallarta last year. Her family says she needed room for her dog, Titan, and visits from her children. Mexican authorities say it was meant to be a safe house for the Gadhafi family.

“I think Cyndy always liked the better things in life,” says her mother, Betty MacDonald. “She always lived in rather large houses and indulged her children.”

At the same time, Ms. Vanier was well regarded in impoverished native communities for settling conflict and connecting with traditions. Just before she was approached about Libya last winter, she was asked to give a eulogy for Lillian Pitawanakwat, a beloved native elder from Birch Island, in the Manitoulin region of northern Lake Huron, who had died after a long illness. The two had struck up a deep friendship after years of working together.

“Cyndy helped us with our own grieving process, and to bring the family together at a terrible time. She brought us together in a circle of healing,” said one of Ms. Pitawanakwat’s daughters.

What emerges from interviews with family, friends and former associates is that Ms. Vanier was part do-gooder, part savvy entrepreneur who was out of her depth when it came to Libyan strongmen and the shady world of international security.

Ms. Vanier says she was at her winter home near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, last winter when Gary Peters, a security consultant from Cambridge, Ont., dropped her a line: Was she watching what was happening in Libya?

Mr. Peters, who had been Ms. Vanier’s bodyguard for two brief-but-heated negotiations in Attawapiskat, had a more lucrative and long-standing job guarding Saadi Gadhafi. Mr. Peters says he saw a chance to combine his muscle and Libyan connections with Ms. Vanier’s more diplomatic skills for a lucrative foreign job.

Later, Mahmoud Razwan of the Canadian Libyan Friendship Association asked Ms. Vanier if she would be interested in a mission to analyze the conflict. She says she told Mr. Razwan they would need a sponsor for the plan. She says he sent letters to a long list of companies with interests in Libya, including SNC-Lavalin, seeking a corporate backer for the plan. (Mr. Razwan could not be reached to comment.)

One day, company executive Stéphane Roy called Ms. Vanier, she says.

“I did not go and solicit him or SNC-Lavalin. SNC contacted my office. It was just a call out of the blue to say we want to know a little bit more about you. My original intent was I was not going to leave Canadian soil at all,” said Ms. Vanier from her jail in Chetumal, Mexico.

Mr. Peters maintains he was the one drumming up all that business.

SNC-Lavalin had $1-billion in projects in Libya, and as The Globe and Mail reported recently, the company had offered to help Saadi Gadhafi with his proposed military operations. This included offering Canadian consultants to assist with a civil-military unit that received funding from the Libyan defence ministry.

The company denies that it got involved in any military-related projects in Libya, except the construction of a prison. It also now says Ms. Vanier’s mission may have been improperly authorized. The company is conducting an internal investigation into $35-million in unexplained payments.

“We are unable to comment on any work performed by Ms. Vanier since it is SNC-Lavalin’s contention that any mandates that may have been given to Ms. Vanier … may have been outside of the permitted scope of authority of those who assigned them,” Leslie Quinton, the company’s vice-president of communications, said in a statement.

The company has fired two executives who were associated with the contract, including Mr. Roy, who could not be reached for comment for this story. Why they believed Ms. Vanier was qualified for the job remains a mystery.

She was paid $100,000 for a 10-day trip which produced a jargon-laden five-page report that criticized NATO harshly for bombing civilians, sidetracking the peace efforts of the Libyan government and provoking a human-rights and humanitarian disaster. “We run the risk that when we intend to help, we sometimes do more harm than help,” the report says in one of its few lucid quotes.

Ms. Vanier was flying high when she returned to Canada, landing on the private jet rented from Mexico through San Diego-based Veritas Worldwide Security, then an affiliate of a company which boasts it offers motorcade operations, corporate security and clandestine operations.

“It was her first big contract with SNC-Lavalin; of course her ego was boosted by it. It was without a question her biggest client, most lucrative. She felt she could handle it. I think she did handle it,” said Ms. MacDonald.

Two months later, Ms. Vanier’s mission to Libya was long over and she had parted ways with Mr. Peters, but she was still flying around on private jets. Her family says she was trying to drum up Mexican business for water projects for SNC-Lavalin through Mr. Roy, and that the company still owes her another $395,500. She also used the jet to fly back to Mexico in late October, where she was planning to winter.

Mexican authorities say this is when they interrupted the plot, charging her and three alleged co-conspirators from Mexico and Denmark, including two employees of Veritas, with participating in organized crime, producing falsified documents, intent to use falsified documents and intent to traffic humans. They say the original supposed fact-finding trip was just the first attempt to smuggle out Saadi Gadhafi.

“I think she was manipulated, hand-picked for this mission from the beginning by people like Gary Peters who knew her vulnerabilities,” says her sister, Rhonda. “She truly thought she was there for humanitarian reasons.”

Mr. Peters, who parted ways with Ms. Vanier before the alleged Mexico gambit, is facing questions from Canadian authorities about his own role helping Mr. Gadhafi flee to Niger, as well as his connections to SNC-Lavalin.

He maintains he knows nothing about any clandestine missions to Mexico and says Ms. Vanier’s naiveté is part of the explanation. “She got caught up in adventure, she saw the big coin, the private jet, it turned her on. But she was out of her element. This was not her world,” Mr. Peters says. “She bit off more than she could chew and started playing with the big boys.”

Ms. Vanier, who steadfastly refused to answer questions about the allegations under Mexican federal law, simply says she remains hopeful it will all be sorted out.

“I am, I am absolutely. I gotta believe.”

With a report from Graeme Smith

Tim Wilson is a freelancer for The Globe and Mail