British man detained in Mexico after being mistaken for a criminal

British pensioner, 66, claims he was ‘treated like a serial killer’ when he was deported from Mexico after being mistaken for an international CRIMINAL during a £3K dream holiday

  • Anthony and Carole Smith flew to Cancun in November 2018 for luxury holiday
  • However Tony was mistaken for someone on watch list of international criminals
  • Father-of-four, 66, was detained at airport in ten feet square room for three days
  • Wife Carole said they’ve both suffered anxiety since return from ‘traumatic’ trip

A British pensioner claims he was treated ‘like a serial killer’ when he was deported from Mexico after being mistaken for an ‘international criminal’. 

When Tony Smith and his wife Carole, both 66, from Worthing, West Sussex decided to celebrate their retirement with a £3K holiday in Cancun, they were dreaming of sunshine, luxury and relaxation.

Instead, they got the holiday from hell when retired businessman Tony was detained at Cancun airport for three days in a 10 sq ft room with no windows, no pillow and only two thin blankets for comfort.

Although the exact reason for his detention still remains a mystery, the father-of-four was told by airport officials that his name was on a US watch list of international criminals. 

He’s since discovered he shares his name with multiple wanted criminals in the US, although not the same date of birth.

Tony has also discovered that airlines hand over passenger details from every plane travelling over American airspace to Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico – even if the flight never actually lands on US territory, so that officials can cross check this against the US No Fly List.

The pensioner now fears going abroad again in case the same thing happens, but is at a loss how to clear his name. 

Anthony and Carole Smith, pictured on a previous holiday, found themselves on a holiday from hell when Tony, 66, was mistaken for an international criminal at Cancun airport and deported

Four months on from the incident Carole, 66, who has been married to Tony for 30 years, said their holiday in November 2018 was ‘strange’ from the start.

‘Whenever we travel abroad, we always check in online and print out our tickets before leaving the house. But for some reason, we were unable to do so, for this trip,’ she recalled. 

‘So at Gatwick Airport, we handed over our paperwork to the lady on the British Airways check-in desk.

‘But while my ticket printed out immediately, she couldn’t get Tony’s to go through. She struggled for 30 minutes, calling a colleague to help, before it finally processed.’

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Something amiss 

At the departure gate, once again Carole’s ticket was checked with no problems. But when it was Tony’s turn, a mysterious alert flashed up on the screen.

Tony, 66, explained how the man taking the tickets asked his colleague if he knew what the alert meant, but they simply said: ‘Never seen it before. Just override it.’

He added: ‘When my boarding pass was printed out, it had four Ss along the bottom, which was new to me. I’ve flown abroad many times, and never noticed anything like that before.’

However, soon the Smiths were on their way to their sunshine holiday. Their all-inclusive deal had set them back £3,000, but they didn’t mind forking out for their once-in-a-lifetime holiday. 

Wife Carole was taken to their hotel, bedroom pictured, but had no money or phone charger on her and said she couldn’t enjoy the luxury break as she was worrying about her husband

During his three-day wait for a flight back to the UK Tony was kept in a small room and made to sleep on a thin matress, pictured, with only two thin blankets and no pillow

The father-of-four was told to shower in a cramped space, pictured, stacked with mops

But when they landed, thinks went wrong when Tony was ushered into a side room as he queued up to go through passport control. 

‘I couldn’t understand what was going on. For half an hour I waited for him outside that room, but I wasn’t particularly anxious,’ Carole recalled. 

Finally, an official appeared to say she could go inside, to join her husband who was being questioned by a national security officer.

Carole said: ‘The man didn’t speak much English, so was talking into a phone that flashed up translations of what he was saying. 

He barked at my husband: “Why are you here? How much money do you have with you? Have you ever been to America before?” 

Tony turned to his wife and rolled his eyes, saying: ‘I’ve answered these questions 50 times already, but he isn’t listening.’

When is an individual added to the US No Fly list? 

As of August 2013, there were 47,000 individuals on the United States’ No Fly list.

People included on the list included those convicted of or arrested for acts of terrorism, assassins, bombers, hostage takers, associates of terror groups amongst others.

The US can also decide to bar foreigners who have committed drugs offences without ever being charged. Would-be travellers can apply to have the ban lifted, but this can take months.

In April 2014, Nigella Lawson was banned from leaving Heathrow on a U.S-bound flight because she had admitted to taking drugs.

The ‘Domestic Goddess’ was forced to confess under oath during a trial that she had snorted cocaine seven times and smoked cannabis in front of her children.

Frequent travel to areas known to be involved in terrorism or financial crimes, can also raise a red flag.

Sometimes errors can occur – like the FBI ticking the wrong box on a form.

A former Stanford University student was mistakenly suspected as a terrorist and placed on the government’s ‘no-fly’ list for nine years because an FBI agent checked the wrong box on her form.

Rahinah Ibrahim, 48, an architect and scholar, was finally allowed to return to the United States in 2014 after fighting to clear her name since 2005.

In January of that year, Ibrahim was arrested and detained for two hours at San Francisco Airport as she boarded a flight to her native Malaysia with her 14-year-old daughter.

Sharing a name with a wanted criminal or terrorist can also cause problems. 

Previously, the TV programme 60 Minutes researched and interviewed 12 individuals who shared names of people on the list.

These included people who shared the name Robert Johnson, who had previously been convicted of plotting a bombing of a Hindu temple. All Robert Johnsons said they have had trouble getting on airplanes. 

High security 

The father-of-four had already had his fingerprints and picture taken, but the official wanted a picture of Carole as well. 

Eventually the security man went off , then returned, telling the mystified couple: ‘You’re of no interest to Mexico. You can both go.’

Tony recalled: ‘We returned to passport control, thinking everything was going to be okay, and all this aggravation would just make an amusing story to tell our family, back home.

‘But while they were happy to let my wife through the barriers, they said: “Mr Smith is awaiting clearance.”

‘Eventually, another official told me: “You’re being denied entry to Mexico. You’ll be detained at the airport until you can be sent home on the next flight – in three days’ time.”

Mistaken identity 

Three hours after getting off the plane, yet another official informed the couple that Tony’s name was on an US watch list of international criminals.

Carole said: ‘We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My husband is a respectable pensioner. The most honest and trustworthy person you could ever meet.

‘I kept saying: “Tony’s done nothing wrong, you’ve made a mistake.” But they wouldn’t listen. I was in shock as my husband was led away and I was ordered to leave the airport.’

Carole, 66, said she spent most of the three days in her room crying and was ‘so stressed.’ Pictured is the pool at the Haven Resort in Cancun where the couple had booked to stay

By now, the transfer vehicle they had booked, had long gone. Carole had to travel on alone in a taxi to their hotel.

‘The journey with a driver who spoke very little English took me through what looked like a dark forest,’ said Carole. ‘On my own, I felt really scared and vulnerable. 

‘Then I realised, because I said goodbye to Tony in such a state, I hadn’t a penny on me, to pay the taxi driver. All our cash was with my husband. 

‘Neither did I have any phone charger – that was in Tony’s jacket pocket, too. Thankfully, the taxi driver didn’t ask me for any more money.’

Dinner for one 

When Carole arrived at the Haven Resort, Cancun, staff appeared to be unaware of any problems and produced a tray with two welcome glasses of champagne on it.

She recalled: ‘I said that my husband had been held at the airport. They didn’t seem to understand, but I wasn’t in the mood to spend ages explaining.’  

While the room boasted spectacular views, Carole was unable to view her surroundings as she was so worried about her husband.

The couple, pictured on a previous holiday, were reunited at the airport and flew back to Gatwick together, although Carole had to pay £200 to change her flight

Thankfully, Tony had been allowed to keep his mobile phone – so now his wife called him.

He said: ‘I’m shut in a little room, ten feet square, without any windows. It’s not much better than a large cupboard. There is a security man outside to guard me. 

‘My bed is a thin mattress on the floor, without any pillows, and two thin blankets. The air conditioning is on full blast, all the time – it’s freezing cold in here.’

Bizarrely, he’d been offered a takeaway pizza to eat – he was just waiting for it to arrive. 

Desperate for help 

That night, both of them barely slept. Carole recalls: ‘Next day, I wasn’t allowed to visit Tony at the airport. So I spent hours in reception, calling the British Consulate, and phoning our four children.

‘None of the officials were much help. The consulate told me: “Because your husband has only been detained, and not arrested, there’s nothing we can do.”

The Mexican authorities were putting Tony on the next plane home. Naturally, his wife wanted to go with him.

But now British Airways made Carole pay a £200 penalty to change the booking for her return flight, using her credit card – then said that until the payment had cleared, they couldn’t confirm the ticket had been issued or even that she’d actually be on that flight with her husband.

If she didn’t get a seat, she would have been forced to wait in Mexico another three days for the next flight.

Carole tried to make the most of the resort and said: ‘I did sit by the gorgeous swimming pool, pictured, a couple of times. I ordered that gin and tonic I had fantasised about sipping at the poolside. But it tasted sour in my mouth’

Carole continued: ‘I was frightened to text Tony too often, for fear of emptying my phone battery. But he told me: “I am confined to my cell except for when the security guard follows me down the hall, to the toilet.”

‘The stress has brought on an attack of his irritable bowel syndrome, so he was up and down to the loo, umpteen times a day.’

Tony added: ‘The facilities were awful. There was a broken urinal, no towels, and the shower cubicle was being used to store mops and buckets. All I could do to freshen up a bit was to have a strip wash.’ 

Trapped in a ‘comedy farce’ 

Carole said: ‘I know there were suspicions my husband was an international criminal, but to me, it sounded like he was being treated like a serial killer. But I felt powerless to do anything to help.

‘For the three days I was at the hotel, I passed most of the time in my room, crying. I was so stressed, every time I went out, I seemed to get lost in the corridors.

‘I tried to start up conversations with some of the other hotel guests, in the hope one of them might allow me to borrow a phone charger. 

‘But most of them were stand-offish and showed little sympathy. Finally a member of the hotel staff who felt sorry for me, lent me his own charger.’

Thankfully, a kindly Canadian couple gave her $50 (£38) so that at least she had some cash. 

She said: ‘I did sit by the gorgeous swimming pool a couple of times. I ordered that gin and tonic I had fantasised about sipping at the poolside. But it tasted sour in my mouth. How could I enjoy myself while Tony was shut in a cupboard, unable to even get some fresh air?

‘It felt like we were trapped in some kind of comedy farce – except it wasn’t funny.’

Reunited at last 

Three days after Tony was detained, it was time for the Smiths to fly home. But BA hadn’t confirmed that Carole was on the flight, until the night before. ‘I found their lack of care appalling,’ she said.

Finally, the couple were reunited at the airport. Tony recalled: ‘I was led to the plane surrounded by two officials and two security guards. All the other passengers could see my walk of shame – it was really embarrassing and unnecessary. 

‘I was 66 years old, for heaven’s sake, did they honestly think I was going to make a run for it?

After arriving home Tony, pictured with Carole, researched the international watch list and found scores of men sharing the name Anthony Smith

‘As I left, I joked with the people who’d been guarding me: “Have you ever heard of TripAdvisor? I’m only going to give you one star, you know.”

‘After I finally got back to Carole, we hugged each other in relief – we just couldn’t wait to leave Mexico behind us and get back to normality.’

Finally they arrived back at Gatwick, and this time they passed through the passport control without incident. One official even asked: ‘Did you have a nice holiday?’ 

Mexican immigration officers had advised Tony to contact the American Embassy to explain why he was ‘flagged up’ at the airport.

He did so once the couple got home – but got no reply due to the ongoing US government shutdown.

Hunting for answers 

But through his own research, he found a website called TruthFinder listing the criminals who could be on international watch-lists. There were scores of men sharing the name Anthony Smith, including one with Tony’s birthday, although they were born several years apart.

‘But my middle name is Inglis – a traditional Scottish name handed down the male side of his family for generations – and none of these people shared that,’ saidTony. 

‘My middle name is recorded on my passport, so that should have made it quite clear that I wasn’t one of these bad guys.’

Tony’s internet trawl also revealed a reason to explain why the national security official in Mexico kept asking if they’d been ‘to the USA before’, and why Tony was advised to contact the American Embassy.

Carole’s hotel room, pictured, was a world away from the conditions her husband was kept in 

Since 2012, the US government has insisted that airlines provide details of every passenger on any plane travelling over American airspace to Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico – even if the flight never actually lands on US territory. 

This is apparently because after the 2001 terror attack on New York, officials became increasingly concerned that terrorists might hijack another plane travelling over the US, and crash it into a building.

Tony said: ‘Looking back, and remembering all the difficulties with my ticket at Gatwick Airport, we wonder if that explains the delays we experienced. Should BA have anticipated that I would be taken for an international criminal and warned us, before we even got on our plane?

‘With hindsight, we realise that once we landed, the Mexicans targeted me because of the American security requirements. But they must have known quite quickly they had the wrong man, thanks to my unusual middle name.’

Scarred by their ordeal 

The reason Tony was denied entry to the country, even though he was obviously not a wanted man and was no threat to anybody, remains a mystery.

The Smiths were so upset by their ordeal that they told nobody except their closest family and friends what happened, until three months after they arrived home.

By then it had become apparent that the Smiths’ insurers were refusing to refund the cost of their dream holiday, saying the bizarre circumstances weren’t covered under our policy’s small print.

Tony says: ‘We’ve lost £3,000, but this has never been about the money. For us, it’s about cleansing the stain on our reputation and making sure we won’t have any further issues if we go travelling again.’

Carole added: ‘Of course, we can see that it might sound laughable. But in fact at the time it was horribly traumatic. Since our return, we’ve both suffered anxiety and insomnia.’

They’ve written to their local MP, Sir Peter Bottomley, and to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who would have jurisdiction to intervene.

Carole added: ‘We want to ensure that Tony’s details are removed from the US watchlist and that his fingerprints and photographs have been deleted from databases related to wanted fugitives.

‘We used to love our holidays, and were looking forward to many more. But until we get the assurances we need, we’ll be frightened to travel abroad again, in case anything else happens.’

British Airway’s response

A BA official reply to the Smiths said: ‘Our legal team have advised the reason there was additional text on your boarding pass was due to extra security checks, which we have to do as an airline to conform with Government policies.

‘Passengers are picked at random to be put through this additional process, and we would never just single out one passenger.

‘Whilst we understand you were detained by Mexican Authorities at Cancun Airport and were detained for reasons outside of your control, I’m afraid we aren’t liable to offer any compensation or a gesture of goodwill. 

‘As an airline we haven’t done anything wrong, and it wasn’t our decision to have you detained. I can only imagine how upset and distraught you were when you were held for 48 hours by Mexican Authorities. 

‘I’m sorry you’re feeling let down on this occasion. I understand your wife changed her ticket so she was able to travel back, however, she did incur additional expenses doing this. 

‘Again this isn’t something the airline is liable for, as your wife made the decision to change her booking.’

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