Sunday 1 December 2013

Canadian Bruce Vigfusson’s year in a Mexican jail

Bruce Vigfusson
Canada’s central role in the global mining boom has meant that more Canadians are working in countries where they are at high risk of getting dragged into some serious trouble. That seems to be the case with Canadian Bruce Vigfusson, 43, who has been in jail in northern Mexico since September, 2012.

(For a more recent update on Mr. Vigfusson's death, see: Canadian Bruce Vigfusson dies in custody in Mexico, and also
Embassy suspends visits to Canadian jailed in Mexico).

Vigfusson, who has worked as a surface driller for the Canadian firms G4 Drilling and Teck, as well as a local Mexican company, Itzcoaltl Drilling and Services, is now serving a four and a half year sentence in Mexico for assault.

“Bruce Vigfusson was already in Mexico when he started to work for us,” Robert Daigle, director of G4 Drilling Mexico, tells La politica. “He worked for us from April 27, 2011, until April 13, 2012.”

According to Mr. Daigle, after that Mr. Vigfusson went to work for Teck, where he didn’t last very long, and then to Itzcoaltl Drilling and Services.

The story

On approximately August 28, 2012, in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mr. Vigfusson, who was working legally in Mexico for a surface drilling company, was at home with his Mexican girlfriend, her three daughters, her mother, two grandchildren and another family member.  On this night five Mexican men threw rocks and bricks at the windows and doors, and attempted to forcibly enter the home. While Mr. Vigfusson held the door shut to prevent the men from gaining access, his girlfriend called the police. However, before the police could arrive, the men, who were armed with tire irons and hammers, got into the home.

Mr. Vigfusson alleges that one of the men threw a weapon at him, narrowly missing his head. He was then hit in the arm with another weapon. Claiming that he acted in self defense, and only to protect the women and children in the home, Mr. Vigfusson fought back against his attackers. The men, apparently aware that the police might be coming, fled moments before their arrival.

Mr. Vigfusson has repeatedly stated that during the events of that night he never hit any of these men in the head, and that his actions were mostly to deflect the blows to him, or dodge the tire irons and hammers. In his defense, it has also been argued that all five men fled the scene of their own accord, and therefore could not have been seriously injured.

When the police arrived they took note of the account provided by Mr. Vigfusson and his girlfriend, and noted the damage to the house, as well as the bricks and rocks scattered about. The police then promised an investigation into the incident; however, to date there has been little evidence that the home invasion or the attacks have been looked into.

Two weeks later, on or around September 12, 2012, Mr.  Vigfusson was detained by the police and taken to a holding facility where he was denied access to a lawyer, translator, or phone. Mr.  Vigfusson, who speaks some Spanish, but not at a level that could sustain a discussion on legal matters, alleges that he was denied access to the Canadian Embassy, and made to sign papers he did not fully understand, without benefit of a translator or the presence of a lawyer.

After signing the papers, Mr.  Vigfusson was given access to a lawyer and allowed to contact his family and the Canadian Embassy. It was after this that he was made aware that during the home invasion one of the five men, Martin Antonio Armenta Lopez (also known as “Armenta Acosta”) had allegedly been injured by Mr.  Vigfusson. The allegations came from two of the men, as well as one of their wives. According to them, Armenta Lopez was dropped off at the hospital with serious head injuries about two hours after the men fled the house. There has been no statement by the injured man himself, and Mr.  Vigfusson still denies he ever hit the man in the head.

On October 12, 2012 Mr.  Vigfusson was moved from the holding facility into the “cereso”, a large prison in Hermosillo, where he awaited his case to go to trial.

Then began another saga, with elements that will be familiar to anyone who has observed the Mexican court system. Mr.  Vigfusson’s first lawyer represented him until the end of December, 2012. This lawyer was allegedly let go for typical reasons: lots of promises, demands for cash, and few results. A new lawyer was brought on board in January, 2013. This lawyer, who wanted a large cash advance, and then consecutive payments throughout the process, was asked to provide a detailed account of how he planned to work for Mr.  Vigfusson’s defense. This he could not do, and quit after receiving about C$1,000.

Seeing the problems Mr.  Vigfusson was having with his lawyers, the judge recommended a public defender. This worked well enough, with evidence and witness statements gathered from people in the home, as well as one of the attending police officers (the second refused to give a statement).  However, it appears that some evidence was either not entered by the lawyer or was withheld by the judge himself. One crucial missing element is the recorded disc of the calls made to police for help when the five men were attacking the home, gaining access, and assaulting Mr. Vigfusson.

On approximately May 17, 2013 both sides concluded their arguments and the case went to the judge to review. A date of June 11, 2013 was given for a possible decision. Mr.  Vigfusson 's lawyer had told him it could be as early as June 7.

However, it happened even faster than that. On May 30, 2013, the judge summoned Mr.  Vigfusson and his lawyer. The decision was made: a four and a half year sentence, as well as compensation to the injured man of 78,030 pesos (about C$6,400) and a fine of 910 pesos (about C$75).

The reason for the harsh sentence, apparently, was that the prosecutor argued that the injuries sustained were severe, despite the fact that the man was released from hospital before the New Year. Mr.  Vigfusson and his girlfriend’s family were under the impression that the man was doing well, though he may have sustained an eye injury. The injured man has since move to another town.

The appeal...and transfer

Mr.  Vigfusson’s lawyer immediately requested an appeal. In order for that to proceed, the injured man had one month to accept the compensation amount. Mr.  Vigfusson was then to be assigned another public defense lawyer for the appeal process, but he decided against this and instead found his own lawyer. To complicate matters, due to Mexico’s bizarre “multi-track” legal system, the injured man has now appealed the initial amount awarded for compensation, despite the fact that the 30 day limit expired long ago.

During the time the new lawyer was hired until this writing the new lawyer has discovered evidence that was not entered or retained on Mr.  Vigfusson's side. This includes, most notably, the failure to present the recording of the call during the attack. Not only had the disc with the recording not been entered as evidence – it had gone completely missing from the files.

La politica is unaware of the present status of Mr.  Vigfusson's appeal. In the interests of transparency, the legal steps for Mr.  Vigfusson's case are available online (2012 is here, and 2013 is here), but there are arbitrary aspects to this case that are hard to divine. For example, on October 3, 2013, Mr.  Vigfusson allegedly got into an undetermined conflict with a guard at the jail. He was then placed in solitary on October 5, 2013. The Canadian Embassy was able to determine on October 7, 2013, that he was to be in the hole for 30 days. But this didn’t happen.

Instead, on or before October 9, 2013, Mr.  Vigfusson was transferred out of the jail in Hermosillo to one in Nogales, Sonora, which is on the border with Arizona. When the Canadian Embassy enquired as to why this had happened, they were told at first his transfer was part of a state project to have detainees with long sentences rotate from one facility to another, so as to avoid facilitating relationships between inmates. The Embassy, after inquiring further with Hermosillo regarding the reason for the transfer, was then told that it was in part due to the conflict that resulted in Mr.  Vigfusson being given 30 days in solitary.

The fact that Mr.  Vigfusson’s case is still before the tribunal in Hermosillo for appeal, apparently, does not matter. Mr.  Vigfusson is now three hours away from Hermosillo, which is where his lawyer and social support is located. So far, he has received no visitors there.

The mystery attack

The circumstances surrounding the initial attack, and the failure of the police to investigate, are areas where both the officials, and those close to Mr.  Vigfusson, are unclear on all of the details.

Mr.  Vigfusson did know three of the men who were involved in the attack at the home, though he did not know the man who was at some point injured, and became the complainant. Two of the known men are brothers, and another was their cousin. Mr.  Vigfusson worked with the uncle of the two brothers, (father to the cousin) though La politica is not sure where. The uncle/father is a mechanic, and Mr.  Vigfusson had worked with him at previous companies – in fact, they have known each other for many years.

Sources close to Mr.  Vigfusson claim that at the time of the attack he was working for G4 drilling. If so, it was only part time work, as G4 Drilling has stated to La politica that Mr.  Vigfusson ceased full-time employment there in April, 2012. In fact Robert Daigle, director of G4 Drilling Mexico, has told La politica that “Someone told me a couple of months ago that he was in jail. That’s all I know.”

There is speculation that robbery was the motive though, if so, it proved unsuccessful. The assailants apparently knew Mr.  Vigfusson’s pay schedule, and the night of the attack was around the time when he was usually paid.

Since the night of the incident Mr.  Vigfusson’s girlfriend has repeatedly attempted to have the attack investigated. The Canadian Embassy has advised her of the Mexican legal route to ensure an investigation; however, Mexican authorities have repeatedly told her that this is not possible. Apparently, on her first attempt she was sent to three different places, only to end up back at the original place, where she was again told that no one would be looking into the matter. In early May 2013 she tried again, this time with the police, but was told that because Mr.  Vigfusson was  charged with an offence, no action was to be taken against the other five.

La politica has inquired into Mr.  Vigfusson's legal history and, to the best of our knowledge, he has no criminal convictions in Canada. Mexican officials, in their investigation, have also looked into this and have found no record in Mexico or Canada.

Why a year of silence?

La politica is aware of some mitigating circumstance that could explain why this story has been on the down low for the past year, without people going to the press – reasons that do not reflect on Mr.  Vigfusson’s guilt or innocence.  That said the silence on the part of Mr.  Vigfusson’s family – to our knowledge, he has a brother in Canada – is a little staggering.

But we have seen many things. We know of a Canadian sailor who went missing in Puerto Vallarta. He is almost certainly dead – either murdered, or a suicide – yet at the time his family wanted no coverage of his circumstances and, to the best of our knowledge, have let his situation rest. One of the missing man’s siblings had expressed concern, and we did some investigating in Vallarta and posted a story, but a request then came from other siblings not to report anything, so we pulled the story. This was odd. Canadian media were interested, too, and much could have been found out, but it is not what the family wanted.

In another example, we covered a story of a Canadian in jail in Mexico who had a sibling who, if possible, did not want to be named, as it could negatively affect how they were perceived at work.

This is not to judge these families, many of whom are traumatized as well. On the contrary, it is to caution the reader not to judge Mr.  Vigfusson and his family and friends for their year of silence.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)