03/10/2012 05:22 EST | Updated 05/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Families Of Canadians Slain In Mexico Search For Answers


Renée Wathelet visited Isla Mujeres dozens of times before she decided to empty her Montreal apartment three years ago and move to the island town in southern Mexico.

Six months later, a man slashed her throat and stabbed her repeatedly, as the 60-year-old Wathelet joined the growing list of Canadians murdered in Mexico.

And like family members of other Canadians slain in the popular tourist destination, Wathelet’s son began a quest for answers that was fraught with difficulties. He’s still struggling.

"All I want is answers, and I cannot get them," said Guy Dubuisson, who lives in Montreal.

Wathelet is one of at least 35 Canadians murdered in Mexico since 2000, according to data from the Department of Foreign Affairs and media reports. Three have been slain this year alone, and a Calgary woman was severely beaten in January at a Mazatlan resort.

An estimated 1.6 million Canadians travelled to Mexico last year, according to the Mexican tourism board, and the country is consistently one of the most visited by Canadians, second only to the United States.

But recent reports of violence against tourists have raised questions about the safety of Canadian travellers and underscored the complexities of dealing with the fallout after a loved one is a victim of crime abroad.

Wathelet blogged regularly about her life on Isla Mujeres and there was no suggestion she might be in peril before she was found dead inside her apartment on Sept. 17, 2009.

Jose Arturo Palacios Garza was arrested the next day. Dubuisson said it's not clear how well her mother knew Palacios, but the director of public security for the island told the media at the time that it was believed Palacios, then 24, had known Wathelet for about a month.

In December 2010, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing the Canadian woman. Palacios, who is also accused of killing his mother in Texas, has since filed an appeal, Dubuisson said.

Despite the arrest, trial and sentence, Dubuisson feels none the wiser about his mother’s last days or about why Palacios stabbed her.

"He didn't just kill her, he mutilated her, and we don't know why."

'Bureaucratic game'

Dubuisson has travelled to Mexico several times since his mother's death and has lingering questions about the investigation and prosecution of the case and the way the Canadian government dealt with it over the years.

"It's pretty much a bureaucratic game, which I find pretty indecent, since it's murder,” he said. "It's the highest crime you can commit here, or in Mexico. It's treated like if I had lost my passport."

He said the Department of Foreign Affairs consular services staff in Cancun, and the case management officer assigned to his case, were kind and compassionate. But he believes Foreign Affairs should do more to help families as they grope their way through a foreign justice system, trying to follow the proceedings involving their relatives.

Even with a sister who speaks Spanish, Dubuisson found making inroads with local authorities arduous. The siblings also consulted with Mexican lawyers to better understand the complex legal system, but they were disappointed with both the Mexican and Canadian responses.

'You never think it would happen to you'

Franceska Dion can sympathize. Her family, too, struggled to find answers after the death of her uncle, Daniel Dion. The 51-year-old Ottawa man was found dead in a burned-out car in Acapulco in October 2010.

Daniel, who had a purse-manufacturing operation in Mexico, was in the country on business. His family became alarmed after not hearing from him and eventually flew to Mexico to launch their own search efforts.

"You want to just scream, cry and stay in bed, but in that case, because they didn't help, we were fighting," Franceska said. "We were like, ‘OK, let's do it. We have to find him.'"

Family members eventually found Dion's body after tracking his rental car using GPS. Mexican police arrested a local man but said they didn't believe he acted alone.

The family was recently told the investigation has been reopened, Dion said.

"You see this in the news every day and you never think it would happen to you," Franceska said. "And when it happens to you, you feel you're alone and nobody is really doing something to reassure you, or give you the step-by-step what you have to do."

Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, said families often struggle to keep up to date as cases develop, particularly in countries where English isn't the main language.

"We have seen many families have to hire their own lawyers in the country where the crime occurred in order to have someone on their side who can communicate with officials," Illingworth said in an email.

Illingworth said Foreign Affairs and consular officials should take a "more active role" in helping Canadians harmed by violence outside abroad, not only immediately after the crime but also in the longer term.

Sometimes families have inflated expectations of what the Canadian government can do. Foreign Affairs officials cannot investigate a crime or death outside Canada, interfere in a local legal process or provide legal advice.

Canadian consular staff can, however, help victims of crime or their families by answering questions about the local system and sharing contact information for local authorities and lawyers. In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs runs a 24-hour emergency line to help Canadians abroad and their families, and case management staff based in Ottawa help handle queries about incidents in other countries.

"Our deepest condolences continue to be with both families who have been through tragic events," John Babcock, spokesperson for Diane Ablonczy, the minister of state for foreign affairs, said in a statement. "Our officials spare no effort to provide the services that are needed.

"We continue to engage in both cases, urging that they be resolved in a timely and transparent manner."

First step should be police

Mexican lawyer Guillermo Cruz, who works as a foreign legal consultant, said Canadians who are victimized abroad should first contact local police and the nearest Canadian consular officials.

But victims and their families should be aware of the many differences between the Canadian and Mexican legal systems. In Mexico's legal system, for example, written submissions are more common than live testimony.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that most assaults and murders of tourists fall under state jurisdiction, and court rules and proceedings — even penalties — can change from state to state.

Cruz said victims do have rights under Mexican law, including access to case information to ensure that everything is proceeding according to the law. Victims and their relatives can also get translation and legal advice during court proceedings if they can prove they can't afford the services, Cruz said.

In 2007, the Canadian government started a financial assistance program for Canadians victimized abroad. The Department of Justice-run fund allots up to $50,000 for "exceptional" expenses incurred as a victim of violence in another country, such as bills for hospital stays and travel to attend court proceedings. The program, which doesn’t pay legal fees, has received an increasing number of applications every year, reaching a peak of 93 applications in 2011-12, the department said.

Dubuisson said his family qualified for reimbursement for some of the costs of travelling to Mexico. But the Montreal man says it often feels like the help his family received was too little, too late.

And still he’s haunted by one question.

"We still don't know why he killed her."

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