In Tale of Millionaire Drug Suspect, Mexicans Judge Government Guilty

Delfino Luna Soriano, 37, reads about the case of Zhenli Ye Gon, who was arrested in a Washington area restaurant. "It's pure theater," he says of the Mexican government's probe. (By Karin Brulliard -- The Washington Post)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

MEXICO CITY, June 28 -- The newspapers fly off the stands at Juan Pérez's kiosk on bustling Avenida Juarez -- especially those splashed with headlines about the riches of Zhenli Ye Gon, an importer accused of drug trafficking in a case Mexican and U.S. authorities have hailed as a blow to the methamphetamine trade.

But to Perez, who has hawked news on this street for 60 years, the true defendant is the Mexican government.

"Tons! Tons of drugs passed through the ports. Who gave the permits?" asked Perez, a spry 75, jabbing his finger into the warm midafternoon air as taxis whizzed by his stand. "In all this, the government is guilty."

Dubbed "El Chino" -- the Chinaman -- by Mexican media, the man whose arrest at a Wheaton, Md., restaurant last week thrust him into the center of the U.S. drug war has for months been the notorious protagonist of what analysts here call the country's biggest political scandal in recent years.

Questions are swirling about government complicity in Ye Gon's alleged trade, not to mention his recent claim that much of the $205 million found in his Mexico City mansion was a "slush fund" he was forced to safeguard for Mexico's ruling National Action Party.

President Felipe Calderón has called Ye Gon's version of the story a "cuento Chino," a phrase that literally translates to "Chinese story" but means "tall tale." Many observers reject Ye Gon's explanation as absurd. But analysts say the obsession over the case reflects an entrenched national belief rooted in decades of corruption: If the government might be involved, it is.

"This is a wonderful story for our very highly emotional intelligence. And this is a very distrustful society," said Raymundo Riva Palacio, a political analyst and newspaper columnist. "Perception is reality in Mexico."

The Mexican press has dissected every hint of fraud. Television channels have replayed footage of then-President Vicente Fox handing a citizenship certificate to Ye Gon in a 2003 ceremony. After government officials said Ye Gon used fake permits to import huge shipments of chemicals that can be used to make the street drug methamphetamine, newspapers churned out articles about shifty customs agents. The questions have triggered probes by Mexico's Congress and the electoral watchdog agency.

Mexican authorities, meanwhile, steadily restate their case against Ye Gon, who is jailed on charges of violating U.S. drug laws; Mexico plans to ask for his extradition, which U.S. court sources say could take years.

Investigators are examining Ye Gon's links to drug cartels and possible collusion by government officials, who will face charges if implicated, a spokesman for the Mexican attorney general's office said. Ye Gon's U.S. lawyers say their client would not get a fair trial in Mexico; government officials accuse them of concocting a story.

"They take advantage of our political cannibalism, and they take advantage of the eternal distrust in our institutions, and those who represent them in a given moment, to generate this enormous smoke screen," José Luis Santiago de Vasconcelos, Mexico's deputy attorney general, said in a recent interview with CNN.

If the Mexican public is skeptical, it is not without reason, political analysts said. Seven decades of one-party rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party fostered an ethos of fraud and untouchability. When Fox's National Action Party ended the reign in 2000, he declared a battle against corruption. But accusations have continued -- Fox's wife, for instance, was accused of using her husband's power to secure major government contracts for her adult children from a previous marriage. When Calderón won the presidency last year by a razor-thin margin, millions of street demonstrators accused him of stealing the election.

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