For the first time, Canada has released a full country-by-country list of Canadians murdered abroad.
Over the last five years, almost 200 Canadians have been murdered while travelling outside the country — cases ranging from drug-related shootings to extortion kidnappings and the opportunist killings of innocent tourists drawn to the seductive tropics.
More Canadians are murdered in Mexico than in any other country. The potential dangers were illustrated as recently as last week on Mexico’s Caribbean coast near Cancun. Tourists ran for cover from gunfire when commandoes wearing ski masks arrived by boat and assassinated two men from a rival drug gang.
Until now, Global Affairs Canada has cited the privacy of the victims, insisting that the public had no right to information on the specific countries in which all these crimes occurred.
Following a successful access-to-information appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, the federal government has changed its position.
Global News is the first to release this new data.
Canada now accepts that the public does, in fact, have a right to the information. Simply releasing the fact that a Canadian has been murdered in a specific country does not identify the victim.
From the initial access-to-information request, it took well over two years before the information was recently released.
Global Affairs Canada still refuses to release more specific details, including the communities in which the murders occurred or the circumstances surrounding the crimes.
A University of Ottawa law professor who helped with the appeal finds it troubling that Canada resisted the release of the information for so long and urges the government to go further in providing timely information on Canadians murdered abroad.
Michel Drapeau, author of two books on information and privacy legislation, says the greater right to know takes precedence. “In a democracy, it’s a question of public interest and public safety.”
Drapeau said he will leave it to the public to decide whether diplomatic reasons and not just privacy concerns influenced Canada’s initial refusal to release the information.
To make good travel decisions, Canadians need to know where others have been murdered, Drapeau says. COVID-19 has shown the value of informing Canadians of hot spots that should be avoided during the deadly global pandemic, he added.
Global Affairs Canada reports it is aware of 191 Canadians murdered abroad over the past five years in a total of 63 countries.
The number includes 49 murdered in 2016; 45 in 2017; 39 in 2018; 31 in 2019; 27 in 2020.
The five top countries in which Canadians were murdered over that five-year period: 24 in Mexico; 20 in the United States; 15 in Jamaica; 11 in the Philippines; and 10 in the west African nation of Burkina Faso.
Read more: What to do if a family member dies overseas
Other leading countries: seven in Dominican Republic; six each in Guyana, India and Pakistan; five each in Haiti, Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, and four each in Belize and Barbados.
One Canadian was murdered in China over the five-year period — the same as Germany, Italy, Japan, Malaysia and Bolivia.
The government reported no Canadians were murdered in Russia during those five years.
Often, the murders of Canadians abroad can go unreported. Canada’s general policy is that it’s up to family and friends to decide to go public with the murder of loved ones.
Drapeau says it’s reasonable to leave out the names of murder victims, but says additional information would be valuable to Canadians travelling abroad, including whether the crime was random or targeted.
“Let us know. As an educated society, we want access to this information.”
Global Affairs Canada media relations declined an interview on the matter but issued a written statement to Global National saying each case has unique facts and circumstances.
To respect confidentiality and comply with obligations under the Privacy Act, Global Affairs Canada “takes the appropriate steps to remove direct and indirect information” that could identify individuals. The risk of compromising privacy increases when “datasets are small or are further broken down against other variables, such as by year and by location.”
“Given the low numbers for certain years and regions, providing more information would raise the possibility that individuals could be identified in certain cases.”
In sharp contrast, the U.S. Department of State publishes online the deaths of Americans abroad from non-natural causes. The data is regularly updated and provides date, location, and cause — not just homicides, but motor vehicle accidents, suicides, drownings, etc.
Global Affairs Canada would not commit to posting online information on Canadians murdered abroad in a timely fashion. “We continuously assess data and information … to determine their eligibility and priority, and facilitate planning for release.”
The Canadian government does provide a travel advisory website for Canadians that provides general information on levels of risk in nations around the world.
The advisory generally warns Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution in Mexico due to criminal activity and organized crime and suggests avoiding non-essential travel altogether to certain states such as Colima, except the city of Manzanillo.
The website offers a similar warning for Jamaica due to violent crime; it also warns of crime, terrorism, civil unrest and kidnapping in the Philippines.
Burkina Faso has experienced numerous violent attacks related to mining development. A geologist with Vancouver-based Progress Minerals working at a mine site near the border with Niger was kidnapped by armed men then killed in 2019. The Canadian government urges Canadians to avoid non-essential travel to the nation due to the threat of terrorism.
COVID-19 restricted global travel in 2020, resulting in fewer Canadians murdered abroad.
Cuba defied that trend. Four Canadians were murdered in the country in 2020 compared with none during the previous four years.
Two separate cases involved Quebec women brutally murdered in the tourist resort of Varadero — one reportedly stuffed in a suitcase in a landfill, the other buried on a beach.
Read more: Canadian tourist dies in Cuba
In those cases, family members talked to the news media.
In tourism advertising, Cuba has specifically promoted itself as a safe destination for travellers.
Despite last year’s murders, Canada continues to consider Cuba a low risk: “Take normal security precautions.”
A similar advisory applies to the United States.
For further travel information, including on Canadian consular services, visit travel.gc.ca. Financial assistance for victims of crime abroad can also be found online.
Larry Pynn is a BC-based, award-winning journalist.
COMMENTARY: Why I fought for data on Canadians murdered abroad
By Larry Pynn
The Mexican village of La Manzanilla seemed like a vacationer’s Eden: palm-fringed beaches, creamy Pacific surf, a warm welcoming wind, and ice-cold margaritas served against a tangerine sunset.
Problem is, Mexico is not always what it seems.
In November 2018, well into my three-week vacation in La Manzanilla — a village of about 2,000 in the state of Jalisco, an hour-plus north of Manzanillo — I received a troubling email from my sister in BC.
“Please tell me you’re safe.”
She had frightening news — and it struck close to home.
Read more: Montreal woman found dead in Cuba
Arthur Aubrey Brown of Victoria, an 82-year-old uncle of an individual we knew, had been brutally murdered — not in La Manzanilla, but in the even smaller village of Boca de Iguanas, about three kilometres down the beach on Tenacatita Bay.
Brown was a widower and grandfather who served as a civil engineer and major in the Canadian army before a 23-year career with the B.C. government, retiring in 1997.
The Boca de Iguanas waterfront is dominated by Chantli Mare — a boutique hotel — a recreational vehicle park and campground, and a loose smattering of homes.
The Fodor’s travel guide says: “Gentle waves make it great for swimming, boogie boarding and snorkeling, but beware the undertow. Some enthusiasts fish from shore. It’s a great place for jogging or walking on the beach, as there’s no slope.”
Brown did not consider Boca de Iguanas a dangerous place — and neither did I.
I stayed at Chantli Mare for one night during a week-long Mexican road trip in January 2018. The experience encouraged me to return the following winter for a holiday in La Manzanilla.
Tourists who holiday in La Manzanilla typically walk the beach to Boca de Iguanas for lunch, then turn back.
There are isolated sections of the beach where bad things could happen and go unobserved. If murderers are at work in the area, then people deserve to know.
I scoured the Internet and could find no story, not in Canada or Mexico, about Brown’s murder.
It was like it never happened. Even when I posted the tragedy on La Manzanilla message board for tourists, it received a tepid response.
Canadians attracted to the climate, culture and value of Mexico can be in denial about the dangers. More than 30,000 people are murdered in the country annually.
There is a sense that “it won’t happen to me,” and if it happens to someone else that person must have done something wrong. Mind your own business, avert your eyes, you’ll be fine.
As Brown’s murder demonstrated, innocent and vulnerable Canadians can also be killed.
I contacted Global Affairs Canada, curious why it did not publicize the murder of a Canadian abroad to warn others who might similarly be at risk.
The department offered its “thoughts and sympathies” to family and friends of the murder victim, but would provide no further details “due to the provisions of the Privacy Act.”
That made no sense to me. This is a matter of the public right to know. “The problem with the federal policy is that it favours protection of the dead over the living,” I wrote back in my response.
I have a natural inclination to right an obvious wrong, which no doubt led me to journalism.
I launched a federal access-to-information request, seeking details on all Canadians murdered abroad in 2018.
Global Affairs Canada — arbitrarily, I argued — would only provide specifics only for those countries in which at least four Canadians had been murdered.
Seven died in the US and six in Mexico in 2018; the other cases were redacted.
In March 2019, I appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, but the government still refused to budge.
Time dragged on.
In March 2021, Navroze Austin, the investigator assigned to my case by the Information Commissioner, said he would begin drafting his investigation report and inform the Commissioner that my complaint was “well-founded.” If approved, I could then pursue the matter in Federal Court.
I had all but accepted defeat. Then, in June 2021, an unexpected surprise. Austin contacted me again to report that the government had agreed to “release the statistics in full.”
I then had to file another access-to-information request to get five years of data.
Today — three years after his killing — I can tell you that Arthur Aubrey Brown was one of 39 Canadians murdered abroad in 2018 and among close to 200 killed over the past five years. During that same period, 24 Canadians lost their lives in Mexico — more than in any other country.
This discovery prompted me to reach out to Brown’s son, David, who agreed to discuss his father’s murder with Global News — a sad, cautionary tale for other Canadian tourists travelling to Mexico.
It is thought that the murderers forced their way into Brown’s home and killed him, then took him and his car and drove it off the road and into a ravine. They cleaned out Brown’s bank account of about $2,000 and took his passport and birth certificate.
An autopsy showed he died of blunt force trauma.
Accompanied by his brother and sister, David Brown travelled to Boca de Iguanas before Christmas 2018 and experienced a litany of frustrations — a foreign language, Mexican bureaucracy, and an ineffective police investigation.
There was also the sheer angst of being in the same remote community where the murder had taken place. “It was probably the worst experience of my life.”
Global Affairs Canada warned Brown not to be overly hopeful of anyone being charged with his father’s killing. An estimated 90 per cent of murders in Mexico go unsolved.
“The police are underpaid and under-resourced and they’re afraid of the gangs and the cartels,” Brown said. Police corruption is also widespread in the country, ranging from bribery to criminal activity, including drug trafficking and murder.
Brown said the police had not even gone to his father’s home to gather forensic evidence until the family arrived — about five weeks after the fact. “If you’re going to gather DNA evidence, you do it when the crime scene is fresh, right? They never bothered.”
Brown realizes his father’s murder won’t stop Canadians from travelling to Mexico. Even some of his father’s friends continue to visit Boca de Iguanas.
“People think that their Canadian passport will keep them safe,” he says. In fact, the relative wealth of tourists can also make them targets.
The Canadian government puts out general travel advisories, but they are often ignored. Canada urges its citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution” in Mexico due to criminal activity, but currently has no specific regional advisory for Jalisco state.
Just to the south of Boca de Iguanas, in Colima state, Canadians are urged to avoid non-essential travel, except for the city of Manzanillo due to violence and organized crime.
Travel journalism — fuelled by government and corporate freebies — doesn’t help by accentuating the virtues of a destination while providing little or no information on safety risks.
At the least, Brown wants Canadians who travel to Mexico not to expect too much from the police — or from their own government.
While Canadian consular staff helped the family navigate Mexican legal and medical issues, they were unwilling to accompany them to Boca de Iguanas, he says.
“‘Oh no, if we can’t be back before dark, it’s not safe for our people.’ Well, wait a second. If it’s not safe for your people, you consular people, what about us?’” Brown said.
“It was a harsh lesson. That’s when I really became aware of the limitations of how little that they could do for us.”
I hope that Brown’s story provides a strong dose of reality for Canadians travelling to Mexico and that the global statistics grudgingly released to me by Global Affairs Canada are only the start of greater information-sharing on Canadians murdered abroad.
Without public and government pressure, there may be little incentive for some foreign nations to properly investigate and bring the killers of Canadians to justice.