Posted in Borderland Beat Forum by Tex
Curious email to Mexican aviation company at heart of case against alleged Saadi Gaddafi smugglers: document.
By Stewart Bell in Mexico City and Natalie Alcoba in Toronto
Details of the case have been kept under wraps because of the closed nature of Mexico’s legal system, but a court document the National Post obtained describes the email message and says it was viewed on Dec. 29 by an agent of the Ministerio Público de la Federación.
The document says that on Aug. 25, 2011, one of the suspects, Mexican businesswoman Gabriela de Cueto, emailed photos and names to the wife of the owner of a small jet charter service that flies out of the airport in Toluca de Lerdo, west of Mexico City.
Two days earlier, Ms. Cueto’s San Diego-based company had reached a deal to rent two of the Mexican jets to fly to Canada and on to North Africa. One of the jets was to wait in Kosovo, where it was to be available to fly into Libya to conduct an emergency extraction.
It was routine for the charter service, which flies government and private-sector clients, to receive emails listing the passengers travelling on its planes, as well as scans of their passports. But when owner Christian Esquino saw the name Gaddafi, it caught his eye.
While the email identified the father as Mr. Bejar, the attached passport indicated the man was actually Saadi Gaddafi, the son of the notorious Libyan dictator whose regime was then being overthrown by NATO-backed rebels, the document says.
Seven months later, the email appears to be a critical piece of evidence to Mexican prosecutors, who have charged Cynthia Vanier, a mediator from Mount Forest, Ont., and Ms. Cueto, a partner in the California firm that was arranging planes for the Canadian. Former Texas nightclub owner Pierre Flensborg and Jose Luis Kennedy Prieto, an alleged passport forger, have also been charged.
But Gregory Gillispie, a business associate of both Ms. Cueto and Mr. Flensborg, said the email should be treated with caution because of Mr. Esquino’s criminal past. Mr. Esquino was deported to Mexico in 2007 after serving time in a southern California prison for fraud.
Although never convicted of a major crime, Mr. Esquino was also targeted by U.S. drug enforcement agents who suspected he was associated with the ultra-violent Tijuana cartel. He was taken into custody by Mexican authorities on Saturday for unknown reasons.
Mr. Esquino testified to Mexican investigators in January that he had rented planes to the suspects and while he did not initially know why they were flying to North Africa, he was eventually told his planes were to be used to bring Mr. Gaddafi to Mexico.
“I absolutely think it should be treated with skepticism,” Mr. Gillispie said of the email. He said Ms. Cueto was in Canada on the day the email was allegedly sent, adding she had accompanied him to Kitchener, Ont., to deliver one of Mr. Esquino’s planes to Ms. Vanier.
“I was with Gabby the entire time we were meeting with Cyndy Vanier on board the Gulfstream III aircraft. I can guarantee you that Vanier did not pass any passport information pertaining to Saadi Gaddafi or anyone else to Gabby while we were in Kitchener,” he said.
Mexican authorities have said they launched their investigation, Operation Guest, on Sept. 6. Ms. Vanier was arrested in Mexico City on Nov. 10. Ms. Cueto and the others were arrested the following day. They were charged last month with counts ranging from attempted human trafficking to documents fraud.
“During the development of the investigation, the agent of the Ministerio Público de la Federación was able to prove that the criminal group came together with the objective of bringing Saadi M. Gaddafi and his family into national territory because approximately since July 2011, they carried out actions to smuggle him into Mexico,” the government said in a statement.
At the time of the alleged conspiracy, Mr. Gaddafi was not permitted to cross international borders. The United Nations Security Council had restricted his movements and frozen his assets, citing his role as a commander in the special forces, close ties to the Libyan regime and “command of military units responsible for the suppression of demonstrations.”
Mexican officials did not respond to requests for comment. Through his lawyer, Mr. Gaddafi has denied any involvement in the Mexico plot. Ms. Vanier also says she had nothing to do with it. She said she travelled to Libya last July to conduct a fact-finding mission for SNC-Lavalin, the Montreal-based engineering and construction firm that had been working on several large building projects in Libya until civil war erupted.
Gary Peters, a private security contractor who accompanied her to Libya, has said there was a plan to fly Mr. Gaddafi, his wife and their two children to exile in Punta Mita, Mexico. He said Ms. Vanier’s role was to help legally obtain Mexican travel papers for the family. But he said the operation was called off in June because the necessary documents could not be obtained.
Mexico was one of several countries examined as potential exiles for Mr. Gaddafi as rebel forces closed in on Tripoli, he said. Others included Algeria, Chad, Niger and Canada. Mr. Gaddafi was unaware of the details, he said. “He was always looking at moving his family for safety, to where he did not know.”
The court document says that after receiving the email, Mr. Esquino’s wife called Ms. Cueto to ask what it was about. Ms. Cueto responded by asking if she knew anyone who could get Mexican documents for the people in the email, the document alleges.
The Post viewed the email and verified the man in the passport was Saadi Gaddafi. The passport includes two photographs of Mr. Gaddafi — one on the photo page and another on a visa issued by the Canadian government. It describes him as an engineer and head of the Libyan Football Federation, a title once held by the dictator’s son. Several Canadian visas were in the passport, corresponding with dates Mr. Gaddafi was in the country.
The email was sent from the address firstname.lastname@example.org two days after Ms. Cueto’s company had made a deal with the Mexican aviation company to rent a Gulfstream jet and a smaller Citation, for up to nine months for $300,000 per month.
“The Citation will be staged in Pristina, Kosovo where it will be available to conduct emergency extractions out of Libya or Tunisia,” Mr. Gillispie wrote in an Aug. 23 email to Mr. Esquino. “In the event that the Citation does execute an on call emergency extract we will pay $500,000 for each trip.” But Mr. Gillispie said the extraction referred to in the deal was simply a contingency plan in case members of Ms. Vanier’s team were injured and needed to be picked up inside Libya.