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Mexico’s Former Lawman Faces Laundering Charges

By Esther Schrader and James F. Smith

Mexico’s former No. 2 lawman has been charged by federal authorities with laundering more than $9 million in drug payoffs through a Houston bank, a move officials hailed Friday as a major victory for U.S. and Mexican anti-drug forces.

Former Deputy Attorney General Mario Ruiz Massieu was taken into custody late Thursday at his New Jersey home. He has been under house arrest there since 1995, first on a minor customs charge and then as he fought extradition.

On Monday, a federal grand jury in Houston indicted him on 25 counts of laundering narcotics proceeds, aiding racketeering and conspiring with drug traffickers.

The indictment alleges that Ruiz Massieu had an associate make cash deposits ranging from $40,000 to $800,000 into his bank accounts at Texas Commerce Bank in Houston during 1994 and 1995. Most of the deposits consisted of $20 bills bundled in rubber bands, stuffed into suitcases and delivered every few weeks -- hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time.

The deposits were made during and immediately after Ruiz Massieu served as a senior law enforcement official in Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s administration.

Mexican Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar on Friday welcomed the news of Ruiz Massieu’s indictment, saying Mexico had collaborated with the U.S. government in building the case. “This represents an important step against impunity,” Madrazo said in a statement.

U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in a statement that the charges show “the enormous corrupting power of drug money. (Ruiz Massieu) was a top official who violated the public trust. There is no worse crime than this for law enforcement officials.”

Ruiz Massieu’s lawyer, Cathy Fleming, called the charges “politically motivated” and said her client intends to plead not guilty.

At a hearing in Newark, N.J., on Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Paisano set bail at $500,000. Ruiz Massieu and his wife co-signed the bond, which allows him to return to his rented house in a Newark suburb. A date for his arraignment in Houston had not been set.

The arrest of Ruiz Massieu follows years of frustrated attempts by U.S. and Mexican officials to bring him to trial for alleged involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering.

He was first arrested by Customs officials at Newark International Airport in 1995, on his way to Spain with $45,000 of undeclared cash in his briefcase. He had fled Mexico amid charges of taking payoffs from one of Mexico’s most notorious drug traffickers when he headed Mexico’s anti-drug effort, and of obstructing the investigation into the 1994 assassination of his brother, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, a top official of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Mexican prosecutors contend that Mario Ruiz Massieu was trying to protect the man convicted in January of masterminding that murder, Raul Salinas de Gortari, the brother of Mexico’s former president.

Raul Salinas also is believed to have profited from the drug trade. Swiss authorities have identified about $115 million they say is protection money paid to Salinas. He is being held in a Mexican jail.

The U.S. charges connected with Ruiz Massieu’s undeclared cash were dismissed soon after they were filed. But Ruiz Massieu has been under court-ordered house arrest ever since, fighting deportation proceedings by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He wears an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor his movements, and is forbidden to leave the premises much of the time.

Mexico has been seeking to have Ruiz Massieu returned to face other charges stemming from its own narcotics and bribery probe, and the Clinton administration has sought to cooperate with the Mexican request. Separately, Ruiz Massieu has been seeking asylum status that would allow him to remain in the United States.

The criminal case against Ruiz Massieu began to fall into place last year, officials said, when a former senior Mexican police official, Adrian Carrera Fuentes, told a federal grand jury in Houston that he had turned over millions of dollars in drug bribes to Ruiz Massieu. The bribes -- consisting of U.S. currency stuffed into two suitcases -- were delivered to Ruiz Massieu in a Mexico City parking lot.