Not Your Average Drug Bust
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
The way U.S. and Mexican authorities describe 44-year-old Zhenli Ye Gon, he might have sprung from some pulp novelist's overheated imagination.
Born in Shanghai, he lived in Mexico and ran a pharmaceuticals company -- a front, authorities allege, that supplied Mexican drug cartels with massive quantities of a chemical used to make the street drug methamphetamine. Police raided his luxurious Mexico City home in March, carting off what they said was $207 million, most of it in $100 bills that had been stashed behind false walls and in closets. The U.S. government called it "the largest single drug cash seizure the world has ever seen."
When the law caught up with Ye Gon on Monday night, his weeks on the lam ended in an Asian restaurant on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton -- in P.J. Rice Bistro, in Westfield Wheaton mall, near a Ruby Tuesday and a JCPenney.
This is a man who owned a fleet of luxury cars and had mistresses in several countries, according to Mexican officials. In recent years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said, he gambled away nearly $126 million in Las Vegas casinos.
At P.J. Rice Bistro, where he and a female acquaintance ordered codfish and baby carrots, DEA agents showed up before dinner was served. "The police came to the table and asked him to go pretty fast," a bistro employee recalled yesterday. "They didn't stay in the restaurant too long."
Not your garden-variety Montgomery County drug bust.
In an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington in support of a drug charge against Ye Gon, federal authorities allege that, between December 2005 and August, his company, Unimed Pharm Chem de Mexico, illegally imported from overseas about 86 metric tons of restricted chemicals into Mexico "for the express purpose of manufacturing pseudoephedrine/ephedrine."
The manufacture and possession of pseudoephedrine, a cold medicine ingredient, is tightly controlled in Mexico, the United States and elsewhere because it can be used to make methamphetamine.
In all, the affidavit says, the company allegedly imported enough chemicals to produce 36,568 kilograms of methamphetamine -- with a street value, the affidavit says, of $724 million.
Ye Gon, whose case has gained huge media attention in Mexico, contends that the millions in his home were not his alone and that he was framed by corrupt Mexican politicians. He appeared in U.S. District Court in Washington yesterday, disheveled and dressed in sneakers, khakis and a yellow plaid shirt. He was ordered jailed without bond pending a hearing next month.
Outside the courthouse, his attorney, Martin McMahon, said Ye Gon has been made a fall guy by leaders of Mexico's ruling National Action Party. Repeating an allegation that Ye Gon has made in recent weeks -- a claim that Mexican President Felipe Calderón has dismissed as "pure fiction" -- McMahon said that $150 million of the confiscated money was part of an illegal "slush fund" amassed by the party in Mexico's 2006 presidential campaign, cash that his client had been forced to safeguard.
McMahon said that when an independent panel in Mexico began investigating questionable fundraising in the presidential campaign, political supporters of Calderón urged Ye Gon to travel to the United States -- setting him up, McMahon said, for the bust. "This is essentially a staged drug raid, a complete fraud," he said.