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US Arrest of Alleged Drug Smuggler is Big News in Mexico

In Mexico, there are daily news reports on the case of Zhenli Ye-Gon, a Chinese-born, naturalized Mexican citizen who was arrested Monday near Washington, D.C., for allegedly running a methamphetamine smuggling operation. Zhenli claims he has been made a scapegoat by powerful political figures in Mexico, but as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Mexico City, the government sees him as a key figure in the international criminal underworld that is undermining security in Mexico.

The arrest of Zhenli Ye-Gon in the United States has stirred up political commentary here in Mexico questioning who he is and what role he may have played in the murky world of drug trafficking. Mexico is expected to ask for extradition of the alleged methamphetamine kingpin, although he also faces charges in the United States. Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who initiated a bold campaign against criminal organizations shortly after taking office last December, says this case shows his government's resolve.

He says criminals should know that this government does not lack the resources or the power to pursue them and capture them whether they are inside or outside the country.

But the Mexican press is speculating on who Zhenli is and what role he played in the country's drug underground. The suspect claims he is the victim of political intrigue in Mexico.

In March, a raid on Zhenli's mansion in Mexico City led to what U.S. officials have described as the largest single seizure of cash on record anywhere in the world. In all, the U.S. currency found, plus some Mexican and Hong Kong currency, was worth around $207 million. The U.S. money alone weighed over two tons and is now stored in a high-security military bank in Mexico.

Zhenli initially claimed that officials close to President Calderon gave him the money, something the Mexican president dismissed as "un cuento Chino," literally a Chinese story, slang here in Mexico for a "tall tale." Attorneys representing Zhenli in both Mexico and the United States say he will fight extradition on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial in Mexico.

But U.S. and Mexican authorities say Zhenli was using his legitimate businesses in Mexico to import massive amounts of pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that is used in cold remedies sold in drug stores around the world. The chemical is a key ingredient in methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant that has been described as a public health menace in many parts of the United States. Mexico recently passed a law to ban pseudoephedrine, ending its availability through pharmacies here. Medicine containing it can be purchased in the United States only in small quantities with a doctor's prescription.

Until recently, most of the methamphetamine in the United States was produced in crude "meth labs" set up around the country in clandestine locations. But a crackdown by U.S. authorities led drug traffickers to shift operations to Mexico, the source of most marijuana and much of the heroin smuggled into the United States and the main stop along the route taken by most cocaine from South America that ends up on U.S. streets.

U.S. officials praise the efforts of President Calderon and Mexican authorities in fighting drug gangs. Mexican officials say illicit drugs have also become a major social problem here at home, where their use among young people is on the rise.