Mexico Drug Bust Reveals Massive Cash Stash
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
In Mexico, a hot debate over a lot of money.
It all started months ago when police raided a home and found more than $200 million stuffed in suitcases and stored in the walls. Authorities described it as the biggest seizure of drug money in Mexican history. But the man who owns the home, a Chinese-born pharmaceutical mogul who now lives in the United States, says it's not drug profits. He says he was blackmailed into hiding cash from a political slush fund.
Michael O'Boyle reports from Mexico City.
MICHAEL O'BOYLE: Chinese-Mexican entrepreneur Zhenli Ye Gon says he is not an international drug trafficker but a legitimate businessman who has been blackmailed by corrupt politicians. He has claimed officials with President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party asked him to stash vast sums of cash from shady campaign funds during the run-up to last year's election.
Martin McMahon is one of Ye Gon's lawyers.
Mr. MARTIN McMAHON (Attorney): Various individuals came to his factory initially with five or $7 million dollars worth of cash. He didn't want to accept it. They said just do us a favor. And they basically threatened his life.
O'BOYLE: McMahon says the cash kept coming. President Calderon this week dismissed the claim, which he described as ridiculous.
President FELIPE CALDERON (Mexico): (Through translator) This is a crude and foolish strategy to avoid Mexican justice and it will fail. This man will go to prison. According to the evidence, this was the biggest blow ever to methamphetamine trafficking in Mexico or in any other country.
O'BOYLE: Mexican officials say Ye Gon unmasked his multimillion-dollar fortune by supplying Mexican drug cartels with the raw chemical ingredients of methamphetamines. Ye Gon's red tiled-roofed mansion sits on a quiet street behind high walls in one of Mexico City's most exclusive neighborhoods.
During the March raid, authorities found two tons of cash packed in suitcases and stuffed in walls. Eleven people, including Ye Gon's wife, were detained, but Ye Gon remains at large and is believed to be in the United States.
Yesterday, his lawyers held a press conference in Washington. They claimed the government had trumped up evidence that he was importing compounds of pseudoephedrine, a cold medicine used to make meth. Ye Gon himself phoned in from an undisclosed location. He said he believed Calderon himself was not involved but he insisted the men who allegedly gave him the cash said it was from the political campaign. And he claimed to have photos proving his allegations. He asked Calderon for a fair investigation.
Mr. ZHENLI YE GON (Chinese-Mexican Entrepreneur): (Through translator) Right now the people have an ulterior motive to deafen the president, telling him I'm a drug trafficker, that I'm a bad person. But I want to ask him to open his mind.
O'BOYLE: Mexican news organizations have been fascinated with the story of El Chino, the Spanish equivalent of the Chinaman.
Mr. RAYMUNDO RIVA-PALACIO (El Grafico): This is the greatest scandal that we have had the last 12 years.
O'BOYLE: Raymundo Riva-Palacio is a political columnist and editor in chief of the Mexico City tabloid El Grafico. He says even if the allegations against Calderon's party don't add up, it doesn't matter.
Mr. RIVA-PALACIO: In Mexico, reality is useless. Perception is the key. It's a great case, regardless how solid or weak it is.
O'BOYLE: Calderon's political opponents have seized on the case, using it to attack his administration's credibility. But last week opposition parties teamed up to launch a congressional probe of Ye Gon's claims.
(Soundbite of dominos)
O'BOYLE: In a Mexico City cantina, men sit and play dominos. Oscar Toriaga(ph) is a 34-year-old chemist. He supports the opposition Democratic Revolution, or PRD, as it is known in Spanish, but he doesn't buy Ye Gon's tale.
Mr. OSCAR TORIAGA (Chemist): I think that is a very silly story. But of course the PRD people are profiting of that to make a scandal, and you know, to put the government in trouble.
O'BOYLE: Mexico has formerly requested Ye Gon's extradition from the United States, which Ye Gon's lawyers say they will fight. They claim he would not receive a fair trial in Mexico and that if he were to return, his life would be in danger.
For NPR News, I'm Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.