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US Judge Enters Not Guilty Plea for Alleged Mexican Drug Dealer

U.S. judge has entered a not guilty plea for a Mexican businessman charged with conspiracy to produce large quantities of the illegal street drug methamphetamine destined for the United States. It is the latest development in the case of Zhenli Ye Gon, who authorities say is an international drug dealer, an allegation the suspect strongly denies. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Washington.

The case of 44-year-old Zhenli Ye Gon sounds like a novel.

The Shanghai-born businessman lived in Mexico and ran a pharmaceutical company, a front, authorities say, that supplied Mexico's drug cartels with huge amounts of a chemical used to make methamphetamine.

When police raided Ye Gon's mansion in Mexico City earlier this year, they found more than $200 million in cash, a haul the U.S. government calls "the largest single drug cash seizure the world has ever seen."

Authorities also found six Mercedes-Benzes and seven guns, including an AK-47 assault rife, and a pistol equipped with a silencer.

Mexican officials say Ye Gon lived a lavish lifestyle that included mistresses in several countries. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says in recent years he gambled away more than $125 million in Las Vegas casinos.

Ye Gon denies any wrongdoing and says the Mexican government is fabricating the drug charges. He says the country's ruling political party forced him to hold large sums of cash that was part of a campaign slush fund, an allegation Mexican officials have called pure fiction.

A U.S. grand jury indicted Ye Gon last week, days after he was arrested at an Asian restaurant just outside Washington, D.C.

On Friday a U.S. judge entered a not guilty plea for Ye Gon, but said he must remain in prison because he is a danger to society and may try to flee the country.

Martin McMahon, an attorney for Ye Gon, told reporters outside the courthouse he is satisfied with the decision.

"The world thinks - [but] we don't think - that he is an international drug dealer," he said. "So a magistrate is faced with the enormous responsibility of not allowing an international drug dealer on the streets and all kinds of other things. So we didn't expect that our client would be released today, but we felt it important, and this is the positive thing, to get on the record what his statements are really and why he is an innocent individual."

Attorneys for Ye Gon are seeking asylum for him in the United States, saying he could be killed if he returns to Mexico.

Ning Ye is an attorney who filed the asylum request for Ye Gon.

"Any moment our client sets his feet on the land of Mexico, he would face immediate and imminent, life-threatening danger," Ning said.

Mexican authorities say the Ye Gon case is also dangerous for those trying to bring him to justice. Earlier this week, two Mexican federal agents involved in catching him were murdered in southern Mexico.

Ye Gon's case has caused a sensation in the Mexican media, with newspapers carrying front-page stories nearly everyday, and television channels devoting significant time to the story.

Armando Guzman, a Washington-based correspondent for Mexico's TV-Azteca, says the case landed like a bombshell.

"This is probably the most important story in Mexico at this time," he said. "It has been the most important story since it broke in the beginning of July."

Ye Gon's next court appearance is scheduled for later this month and his attorneys say they will argue that the charges against him should be dropped.

Mexico plans to ask for Ye Gon's extradition, a process U.S. court officials say could take years.