Suspected methamphetamine trafficker Zhenli Ye Gon was arrested by U.S. federal agents in a suburban Washington restaurant, four months after police seized US$207 million (EUR 150 million) in cash in his Mexico City mansion.
Ye Gon's arrest by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents Monday night is expected to complicate the Chinese-Mexican fugitive's efforts to avoid extradition to Mexico, where he is wanted on organized crime, drug trafficking and weapons charges.
Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora called the arrest "magnificent news" and said Mexican officials had 60 days to file their legal arguments for extradition.
Ye Gon's U.S.-based lawyer, Ning Ye, denounced the "lousy evidence made up by Mexican government" and said Ye Gon would apply for political asylum in the United States.
In Washington, DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney confirmed Ye Gon's arrest, saying the fugitive was tracked down by agents and did not turn himself in.
In March, Mexican agents found the US$207 million (euro150 million) in dollar, peso and euro bills in Ye Gon's Mexico City mansion in what U.S. officials called the biggest drug cash seizure ever.
Medina Mora said the money was connected to one of the hemisphere's largest networks for trafficking pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in methamphetamines. He said the ring had been operating since 2004, illegally importing the substance and selling it to a drug cartel that mixed it into the crystal form and imported into the United States.
Ye Gon said the chemicals imported by his company, Unimed Pharm Chem de Mexico SA, were legitimate and intended for use in prescription drugs to be made at a factory he was building in Toluca, just west of the Mexican capital.
Ye, the attorney, said early Tuesday that DEA agents swarmed the Maryland restaurant where his client had been dining with a member of his legal team at about 9:30 p.m. Monday. The agents also raided the house where Ye Gon had been staying. Ye Gon went willingly, he said.
The lawyer said he was surprised by the arrest because he had reached a verbal agreement late last week with a DEA agent in Mexico that called for Ye Gon to surrender to U.S. marshals on Thursday. In return, Ye Gon was to be tried in the United States, not Mexico, Ye said.
"Only the United States can provide the most comprehensive procedural safeguards concerning what is happening on the Mexican side," Ye said.
Ye said he will be at the U.S. district court in Washington early Tuesday to file the first motions in the legal battle.
Late Monday, Medina Mora said Ye Gon's girlfriend Michelle Wong has been detained in Las Vegas and may also face criminal charges.
Rogelio de la Garza, Ye Gon's lawyer in Mexico, told the Associated Press that his client would fight extradition. But he said he feared that U.S. authorities may simply deport him to Mexico to avoid a drawn out legal battle in a U.S. court.
"I don't know if his visa (for the United States) has run our or not," De la Garza said.
De la Garza said he will fight for Ye Gon's immediate freedom if he arrives in Mexico, arguing the money was earned legally and that Ye Gon was not found with any narcotics.
Ye Gon has also claimed that claimed that US$150 million (EUR 109 million) of the money belonged Mexico's ruling party, and that he was forced to store it for party officials in his mansion under threat of death during the 2006 presidential race, which Felipe Calderon narrowly won.
Calderon has called the accusations "pure fiction."
U.S. anti-drug officials have praised Calderon's crackdown on Mexican traffickers since taking office. DEA chief Karen Tandy also praised Mexican agents following the March money seizure.
"This is like law enforcement hitting the ultimate jackpot. But luck had nothing to do with this windfall," Tandy said, calling it "the largest single drug-cash seizure the world has ever seen."