Collateral damage in Mexico's war on drugs: Canadian talks about his ordeal
Published Friday, November 8, 2013 10:53AM EST
Last Updated Monday, November 11, 2013 10:36AM EST
For Pavel Kulisek every moment of his free time is spent catching up on three and a half lost years with his wife and two daughters.
Until recently, Pavel, a construction contractor from North Vancouver, was locked up in a notorious Mexican prison in Guadalajara alongside hardened criminals, accused of crimes he did not commit.
Pavel ordeal began during a family vacation in the Mexican Baja peninsula in 2008. His passion was dirt biking and off-roading, and soon after arriving in the town of Los Barriles, he met another dirt bike enthusiast – a man calling himself Carlos Herrera. The two hit it off.
Then, on March 11, 2008, about three months after meeting Carlos, Pavel got a phone call asking to drop by a local hot dog stand for a beer. That decision to join Carlos and an acquaintance called Eduardo would prove disastrous.
Within minutes of arriving, Pavel found himself in the middle of a massive police takedown.
“I just look around and I can see Carlos and Eduardo. They’ve got their hands up and I said, ‘what the heck, what’s happening?’ And I just start waving my hands and some guys jump on me and just put me down on the ground and a gun in my head …” Pavel told W5 in a recent interview.
“I just like this is unreal. Like it was just like I’m not here. It was just unbelievable.”
Soon after his arrest, Pavel was spirited away by plane to Mexico City where he, Carlos and Eduardo were paraded before the news media. He had no idea that he’d been caught up in a major police operation – collateral damage in Mexico’s drug war.
It was at that news event that Pavel learned that his dirt-biking buddy Carlos was really Gustavo Rivera Martinez, an alleged drug kingpin. And Eduardo was actually Marcos Assemat Hernandez, a corrupt ex-cop with convictions for drug trafficking.
It was at that point that the, Mexican police accused Pavel of being a member of the Tijuana Drug Cartel.
Asked if he had ever been in trouble with the law before his arrest, his wife Jirina Kuliskova told W5, “Never. Never in the Czech Republic. Never in Canada. Never in Mexico. Anywhere in the world.”
Ever involved in drugs?
“No. Never,” Jirina said, a fact corroborated by the RCMP, who searched their database and found nothing on Pavel Kulisek.
But the Mexican authorities cared little about that. Pavel was denied bail – unless he was prepared to give them what they wanted.
“One of the guys said like, you know maybe a nice big envelope, they’ll fix some things. I said, what do you mean, like you want some money from me? I said you know what, go to hell. I’m innocent guy. I’ve done nothing wrong,” Pavel recounted.
After three months, Pavel was charged with drug trafficking and belonging to an organized crime organization. He was transferred to maximum security at the notorious Puente Grande Prison in Guadalajara.
Back home, Jirina and family friends rallied to his defence by staging protests, demanding that the federal government intervene in Pavel’s case but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
In 2009, W5 interviewed then-Foreign Affairs Minister of State Peter Kent who said: “We have to have faith that due process will prevail.”
It’s a position the Canadian government maintained throughout Pavel’s imprisonment, even in the face of blatant corruption by the Mexican justice system.
Not only was alleged evidence against Pavel provided by a corrupt ex-cop, but Mexican officials assigned to his case were indicted for corruption – one even landing up in the same prison as Pavel.
After three years in prison with still no final hearing, Pavel decided to take matters into his own hands. He attempted to hang himself. He was cut down by prison guards and transferred to a psychiatric prison.
“It was very, very scary,” Pavel said. “The first dinner I had there, the guy that sit beside me and he was telling me how he killed many people, chop them into pieces and I was just in shock.”
Pavel’s situation remained hopeless. Then, five months after landing in the psychiatric prison, there was yet another unexpected twist in his case - a surprise visit to his jail cell from Canada’s Ambassador to Mexico.
“He said Pavel you’re going home. And I start smiling, I said yeah, right. I didn’t see a judge yet. How can I go free?” recounted Pavel.
A Mexican judge had reviewed the case and found that Pavel was not guilty of any wrongdoing. There were no grounds even to support a case.
On August 16, 2011, after more than 1,200 days in custody, Pavel Kulisek was finally set free.
As expected, his homecoming was emotional. “It’s an indescribable feeling. You just see your kids grow up so much and you see this, it’s wonderful.”
Now, two years after his release, Pavel is busy rebuilding his life. Most importantly, he’s trying to make up for the precious time he lost with his family.
But the past is something that he simply can’t let go of. He’s writing a book, determined to make sense of those painful experiences, and sometimes he has nightmares.
“I had a very bad nightmare. I’m in prison again and I try to escape. They catch me again, they beat me up and I just wake up and I punch myself two times and say no, this is not true.”