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Inquest called into death of Mexican woman who died in border agency's custody

VANCOUVER - A coroner's jury will examine what happened when a Mexican woman died after hanging herself while in custody of border agents at Vancouver's airport, the B.C. Coroners Service announced Tuesday.

Lucia Vega Jimenez, 42, was found in a shower stall in a holding cell at the airport on Dec. 20, and she died in hospital on Dec. 28, though the case didn't come to light until details surfaced in media reports in late January.

Jimenez's suicide raised questions about how the Canada Border Services Agency handled the woman's case, and several advocacy groups have called for an independent investigation, ranging from a coroner's inquest to a full-scale public inquiry.

Coroners service spokeswoman Barb McLintock said the agency decided to hold an inquest in large part because the incident that led to Jimenez's death occurred while she was in custody.

"In those cases, the chances are very high that we will, for the sake of transparency, hold an inquest," McLintock said in an interview.

"She was not free to go, so we have an extra responsibility to take care of her."

A coroner's jury is scheduled to hear evidence beginning Sept. 29. The jurors will then make recommendations to prevent similar deaths but, under the rules that govern the coroner's office, they cannot make findings of fault or legal blame.

According to the advocacy group No One Is Illegal, Jimenez was a migrant who had been working at a Vancouver hotel when she was arrested in December over an unpaid transit ticket.

She was transferred to jail and then sent to the CBSA holding cells to await deportation, the group said.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said he was pleased the B.C. Coroners Service called an inquest to examine the specific circumstances of Jimenez's death.

Still, Paterson said the inquest won't go far enough, and he still wants a public inquiry that could examine not only why Jimenez died, but what happened after.

"There are other questions that a corner's inquest is not going to answer, namely: Why did it take so long for the CBSA to reveal to the public that she had died in their care? Why was it that it took a month for this information to trickle out?"

A spokeswoman for the border agency declined to comment on the case in detail, but wrote in an emailed response that the Canada Border Services Agency "welcomes the opportunity to provide information and clarity on CBSA policies and procedures around detention."

"What we can tell you is that the CBSA is committed to ensuring the health and safety of those in our care, and we will carefully review any recommendations that may result from this inquiry," wrote Faith St. John.

St. John added that the agency has already launched its own review of its detention operations.

Paterson said he also wants to know more about the role of a private security company, Genesis Security Group, which has a contract to work at the agency's detention centre at the airport.

"They've got a lot of involvement, but we understand very little about the kind of training that they have," said Paterson.

"What we have here is law-enforcement functions, like the guarding of detainees, being contracted out, and we have a great concerned about the standards in that context."

Ashley Meehan, vice-president of Genesis Security, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing his company's contract with Canada Border Services Agency.

"In general, we assist with running security for the holding centre and doing some of the transports with detainees," he said in an interview.

"We will be working with CBSA and the B.C. Coroners Service to assist in any way possible."

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