KELOWNA, B.C. — A perplexing mystery in the Okanagan is raising concerns of area police and the B.C. Fruit Growers Association.
There is still no sign of four farm workers and association president Fred Steele says this is the first disappearance in the decade-long history of Mexican farmhands travelling to the Okanagan to help with fruit harvests.
"To my knowledge, no one's ever pulled a Houdini act, vanishing like this, before now," Steele said.
The four men, who range in age from 27 to 39, were among 1,500 Mexicans working this summer in the Okanagan at farms or nurseries, as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.
They had been in Canada for only 10 days when they took a cab into Vernon, June 26, from the North Okanagan orchard where they were employed, RCMP said.
They cashed some cheques and haven't been heard from since.
"Right now, we don't have any idea where they are," said Gord Molendyk, Vernon RCMP spokesman.
Some of the other Mexicans interviewed by police at the orchard where the four were employed said they believed the men were going to try enter the U.S. illegally, he said.
But it's also possible the four have simply gone to work on a different Okanagan farm, Molendyk said, and the orchardist hasn't yet advised officials who oversee the program, which is designed to help farmers who can't find enough Canadians willing to work in the orchards.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program is overseen by both the Canadian and Mexican governments, that approve orchardists for participation, screen Mexican applicants, inspect the accommodation provided for farmhands, and ensure compliance with relevant employment and contract law.
"It's a very well-run program," Steele said. "Of course, there can be some problems that come along, like with rates of pay and housing conditions, but those are usually resolved within a day or so."
Mexicans' general satisfaction with the program, earning considerably more money here than they could at home, is evident by the number who return each year, says Pinder Dhaliwal, the BCFGA's vice-president.
"Eighty-seven per cent of the Mexicans who were here last summer are here this year," said Dhaliwal, a longtime Oliver grower. "And of all the thousands who have come here since the program began in the Okanagan 10 years ago, these are the first ones that have disappeared."
Okanagan growers have to pay the Mexicans' transportation costs.
"Who knows, maybe these four guys never intended to work on an orchard and they had something else in mind right from the start," Steele says. "That's obviously a possibility, but it's just a mystery for now."
The missing men are Uriel Soto, 37, Issac Bautista, 27, Juvenal Binedo, 39, and Juan Sanchez, 30. Molendyk said he didn't know if the four had worked in the Okanagan before, or were first-time participants in the seasonal employment program. (Kelowna Daily Courier)
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