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Missing worker mystery stirs up controversy

VERNON – This week, RCMP renewed their call for information about four missing Mexican men who had initially traveled to the Okanagan for work. The group has now been missing for over a month. Meanwhile, police are facing criticism for their handling of the group’s disappearance.

Uriel Huizar Soto, Issac Jimenez Bautista, Juvenal Rios Binedo and Juan Manual Sanchez Gallegos came to Canada as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) which allows Canadians to hire workers from Mexico and the Caribbean. The BC Fruit Growers’ Association says around 1,500 come to work in Okanagan farms and orchards each year. Neither the association nor the police are aware of another local case of SAWP participants going missing like this.

Police say all four men left a farm to go to Vernon on June 26 and have not been heard from since.

“Reports are they came in [to Vernon] in a taxi [and] they went to a cheque-cashing place here in the city,” says RCMP spokesperson Gord Molendyk. “They left some of their personal belongings on the farm when they left and they left some personal belongings in the taxi cab.”
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The RCMP’s handling of the group’s disappearance has now drawn criticism from an advocacy group called Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture. It feels the way the men’s disappearance was talked about unfairly suggested the men might have done something wrong. For example, the advocacy group takes issue with the way border authorities were discussed in relation to the disappearances.

The original police press release, issued on July 20, said “The migrant workers are flagged with CBSA [Canada Border Security Agency] and the Department of Homeland Security.”

“It really does sound like the RCMP were concerned they were out to commit a crime not just that they were missing,” says Elise Hjalmarson, an organizer with Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture. “We were really happy to see the RCMP release a second statement that really expressly and explicitly articulated their concern for the wellbeing of these workers.”

Police say they take all missing persons cases seriously regardless of where people are from.

“It doesn’t matter where they are from we are treating all missing persons cases the same. It has nothing to do with what their ethnic background is,” says Molendyk.

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“I can’t tell you all of the details of the investigation. There are indications that they were making inquiries about how far it is to the border. They were making inquiries about working in other areas. Both of these things have come to light in this investigation.”

Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture also objects to the release of personal information about the four men including their passport numbers. Police have admitted the release of the passport numbers was a mistake.

“I made an error,” admits Molendyk. “The information came, I put it out and I missed the fact that the passport number was there.”

BC Fruit Growers’ Association says workers who come to the Okanagan as part of SWAP are contracted to one farm but can leave if they don’t wish to work. There are circumstances where workers can transfer to another farm. However, there is a formal process involved. In the case of the four missing men, authorities are not aware of any official workplace transfer.