MEXICO CITY—Until recently, Zhenli Ye Gon was an unknown Chinese-born businessman who lived quietly in one of Mexico City's most exclusive neighborhoods.
Today, he's an international fugitive, accused of supplying Mexican drug cartels with tons of chemicals used to flood the United States with methamphetamine.
When Mexican agents raided his Mediterranean-style mansion in the posh Las Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood in March, they discovered $205 million in U.S. currency.
All cash. Mostly $100 bills.
Now, authorities investigating Ye Gon say he was living a lavish life outside of Mexico that was as mind-boggling as his alleged drug operation.
Ye Gon collected luxury cars, kept mistresses in various countries and gambled as a high roller in Las Vegas—where he was last sighted sometime in March.
"This guy was all over the map," said one U.S. official who's monitoring the investigation but asked not to be identified because he didn't want to be seen as commenting on a Mexican probe. "He was a shaker and mover, and now he's a dodger and ducker."
Highly addictive methamphetamine has been a growing drug problem for the past decade throughout the United States, particularly in smaller cities and rural areas. U.S. authorities have taken many unusual steps to crack down on it, including limiting sales of over-the-counter cold medications that contain the ingredients that can be used in its manufacture.
As U.S. law enforcement cracked down on domestic production of meth, more of the drug began flowing from Mexico, prompting a crackdown here on the sale and importation of pseudoephedrine, the cold-medicine ingredient that's key to methamphetamine's manufacture. In 2004, the Mexican government imposed limits on how much pseudoephedrine companies could import annually.
Now Mexican and U.S. officials fear that Ye Gon's case shows that the flow of the chemical remains unabated.
Where exactly Ye Gon, 44, might rank in the shadowy world of drug trafficking remains unclear. But the fact that he ran a company called Unimed Pharm Chem Mexico and that the cash found in his house was the largest such seizure ever sent up red flags.
"It was clearly alarming," the U.S. official said. "One chemical supplier was able to bring in that much—and we know from experience that there are others illegally importing into Mexico."
Methamphetamine is big business for Mexican drug cartels. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that at least 80 percent of the methamphetamine on U.S. streets originates in Mexico.
Much of that is believed to be manufactured in so-called super labs such as one discovered last year in Guadalajara; with 11 custom-built pressure cookers, it could churn out 400 pounds of meth daily.
The DEA believes the raw material needed for such labs is imported from China and India.
"The Chinese are well aware of the problem, and we're doing what we can to work with them," said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman in Washington, D.C.
Among Mexico City's sizable Chinese population, Ye Gon was somewhat of a mystery.
Born in Shanghai, he came to Mexico in the 1990s and became a naturalized Mexican citizen. He was always well dressed, and Mexican newspapers described him as reserved, though he once paid cash for a Mercedes. He married the daughter of a restaurateur who owned a Chinese eatery in Mexico City's historic district. The restaurant was also raided, and his wife, cousin and five others were arrested in the March raid on his mansion and remain under house arrest.
He founded Unimed Pharm in 1997 as an affiliate to a Hong Kong company. It's listed as Mexico's third largest pharmaceutical importer.
When limits were placed on pseudoephedrine imports, Ye Gon didn't reapply for an import license. Instead, his company brought in other medication and medical supplies, such as IV bags and urine cups.
Investigators now believe, however, that Ye Gon continued to import pseudoephedrine, smuggling as much as 60 tons in from China over two years in assorted packages with phony labels.
Authorities have yet to determine where the chemical went, but believe Ye Gon sold it to brokers who in turn passed it to drug gangs.
Mexican authorities' big break in the case came in December, when they seized 19 tons of pseudoephedrine bound for Ye Gon's company aboard a British-flagged ship docked in the Pacific port of Lazaro Cardenas. The ship had set sail from China and had stopped briefly in Long Beach, Calif., before continuing on to the Mexican port.
Mexican authorities moved on Ye Gon's gated, white-pillared mansion three months later.
There, they found the huge amount of American currency, 17.3 million Mexican pesos (roughly $1.6 million in U.S. dollars), as well as smaller stashes of Hong Kong currency, euros and travelers checks.
They also seized eight vehicles, including six Mercedes-Benzes.
Ye Gon, however, wasn't there.
Authorities believe he was most likely at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, a favored haunt. The company also operates casinos in Macau, the former Portuguese colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1999.
Venetian Resort officials, who said they couldn't talk about Ye Gon for privacy reasons, did acknowledge that they recognized the name as soon as it appeared in a news story on the Mexico City raid.
"We can say that one of our senior executives read a newspaper article on March 17, 2007, regarding the raid of a Mexican pharmaceutical company," the resort said in a statement in response to questions from McClatchy Newspapers. "That same day we promptly made a report to the Nevada Gaming Control Board and, through the NGC, made contact with another government agency."
Jerry Markling, the state's gaming commission chief of enforcement, offered a different version of events, saying the DEA contacted the hotel first. He also said his agents helped the DEA execute search warrants at the Venetian and elsewhere in Las Vegas, seizing a Lamborghini as well as a Rolls-Royce that the hotel had purchased for Ye Gon.
But where Ye Gon went when he left the hotel is unknown.
Authorities have contacted Interpol, the international police agency, for assistance, but aren't expecting a quick arrest. "We don't know where he is," said the U.S. official monitoring the case. "If he's traveling under aliases, we'll have more trouble."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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