U.S. extradites businessman accused of drug ties to Mexico

NEW YORK/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday extradited to Mexico a businessman accused of working with drug cartels after $205 million in cash was found at his Mexico City home, ending a years-long legal battle.

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Zhenli Ye Gon, who was arrested in the United States in July 2007 after the discovery of the cash, faces charges of organized crime, drug trafficking, firearms and money laundering in Mexico, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement.

“The United States government recognized Mexico’s strong interest in prosecuting its own citizen,” said spokesman Peter Carr.

Ye Gon’s extradition came after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his final appeal.

Ye Gon was the former owner of the defunct Mexican pharmaceutical wholesaler Unimed Pharm Chem, which imported chemicals that U.S. and Mexican prosecutors alleged were used to manufacture the illegal drug methamphetamine.

Ye Gon’s attorney, Gregory Smith, has said his client was a legitimate businessman. “The Mexican people should understand that Mr. Ye Gon has not yet received any trial, or been convicted of anything,” said Smith, adding that Ye Gon had already spent nearly a decade in jail in the United States.

U.S. prosecutors brought charges against Ye Gon after his arrest, but their case against him collapsed in 2009 after key witnesses recanted or refused to testify.

Ye Gon, who remained in custody, had since been fighting his extradition to Mexico, arguing he could face torture or even death if sent back.

U.S. courts rejected those arguments and the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied a petition addressed to Justice Sonia Sotomayor to temporarily halt the extradition, clearing the way for Ye Gon’s return.

“We were able to refute all the arguments put forward by the defendant and his defense,” Salvador Sandoval, an assistant attorney for international affairs in Mexico’s attorney general’s office, said in a statement. An arrest warrant issued against Ye Gon in the State of Mexico is still in force, the statement said.

The cash seizure at Ye Gon’s mansion, said by authorities to be the largest ever at the time, played a role in U.S. money-laundering investigations at the British banking giant HSBC and the Las Vegas Sands Corp casino company. [L8N1B65BM]

Ye Gon’s attorney said his client was unable to dispute Mexico’s charges during the extradition hearings since the focus was on the treaty between the United States and Mexico. “But those asserted facts now can (and will) be disputed in Mexico,” Smith said.

Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Natalie Schachar in Mexico City; Editing by Peter Cooney