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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)

According to recent surveys by Transparency International, a Berlin organization that monitors corruption, Mexicans gave their government a 4.4 on a corruption scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being most corrupt. A poll by the daily newspaper La Reforma found that most Mexicans either buy Ye Gon's story or believe neither side. Bumper stickers reading "I believe the Chinaman" are for sale.

Ye Gon, a native of Shanghai, was a stranger to the Mexican public before March. He immigrated in 1990 and for a time imported Chinese trinkets, officials said. In 2000, he began importing Chinese pseudoephedrine, a cold medicine ingredient that can be used to make methamphetamine, ostensibly to sell it to drug manufacturers. The government says he lost his permit in 2005, when Mexico cracked down on a growing meth market.

But officials received an anonymous tip in early 2006 that Ye Gon was dealing pseudoephedrine to Mexico's drug underworld, and "Operation Dragon" was launched with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. On Dec. 5, a ship arrived for him in a southwest Mexican port carrying 19.7 tons of a substance listed on shipping manifests as a chemical that does not exist, Mexican and U.S. authorities say. Laboratory tests revealed it was a derivative of pseudoephedrine, authorities said.

That led to a March raid on Ye Gon's home, a colonnaded mansion with an indoor pool and a wine bar. Authorities found six Mercedes-Benzes and two other cars; a small collection of firearms that included an AK-47 assault rifle; and duffel bags, wheeled suitcases and metal lockers bursting with $205 million. A raid on Ye Gon's two Mexico City warehouses revealed boxes filled with purses and fake Christmas trees, and 12 bags containing pseudoephedrine, while a search of his factory outside the capital turned up traces of meth and pseudoephedrine, Mexican officials said.

Ye Gon, who had fled the country, was charged with drug trafficking, money laundering and weapons possession.

In an affidavit accompanying his petition for asylum, Ye Gon insists he lived a quiet life in Mexico, distinguished only by his transformation into an "ultra-successful business entrepreneur." He says $150 million of the cash stash was escorted to his home by police and foisted on him by Labor Secretary Javier Lozano Alarcón, who threatened him with death.

His Washington-based attorney, Martin F. McMahon, said the rest was Ye Gon's hard-earned money, which he did not entrust to Mexican banks. McMahon said Mexican officials have destroyed the chemicals in question and laundered the seized cash.

In a statement, Alarcón called the allegations "false, absurd, implausible, deceitful and perverse."

Analysts say Calderón has a chance to capitalize on the case. If officials helped Ye Gon, they likely did so under Fox's administration. Busting them would make Calderón look like "a very righteous guy," Riva Palacio said.

In interviews, several Mexico City residents said they doubted that would happen.

"It's pure theater," said Delfino Luna Soriano, 37, an office worker. "Investigation, investigation. Then it is suddenly going to end."

The government has attempted to deflect some of the concerns. The $205 million, officials announced at a news conference Thursday, was deemed abandoned after 90 days passed without a claim for it, so the government doled it out to the attorney general's office, the courts and the Health Ministry to combat drug addiction and fight crime.

"What we have here is a criminal case, not a political case," the attorney general's spokesman said on a recent morning in his office, where a framed poster of the stacks of Ye Gon's cash hangs on the wall. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.

Try telling that to Cecilia Lopez, 38, a teacher who smoked a cigarette on a recent evening in a leafy downtown park. For all she knew, Ye Gon's duffel bags might have held drug money or campaign funds or both. The government and drug traffickers are part of "the same mafia," she said, shrugging.

Ye Gon, she predicted, would be extradited and found guilty, and nothing else would come of the case.

"It's like a soap opera," she said, exhaling. "But we know the end of the story."

Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig in Washington contributed to this report.

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