MEXICO CITY — U.S. authorities have seized more than $9 million in Texas bank accounts bearing the name of Mario Ruiz Massieu, Mexico's former deputy attorney general--a move that Mexican and U.S. officials said was a strong, new sign that links exist between the onetime crusading prosecutor and international drug cartels.
The seizure by U.S. Customs agents of two accounts at Texas Commerce Bank in Houston provided the first confirmation that U.S. authorities have expanded their probe of Mexico's former top narcotics investigator.
He has been jailed on U.S. charges of failing to properly declare more than $40,000 in currency when he attempted two weeks ago to leave an airport in Newark, N.J., for Spain. Mexican authorities have charged him in the alleged cover-up of information in the assassination last year of his brother, the No. 2 official in Mexico's ruling party. The brother of Mexico's former president is now being held in connection with that killing.
"I can confirm that money of Mr. Ruiz Massieu was seized in Houston as part of our investigation," Customs Service spokesman Steve Duchesne said, giving the first confirmation by U.S. officials that the accounts existed.
Duchesne offered no further comment.
But, that the Americans, by late Monday, had seized Ruiz Massieu's accounts--which had been frozen--was telling in itself. U.S. Customs officials normally take such an action almost exclusively in connection with major drug investigations.
Mexican officials later confirmed that the Texas seizure was part of a rapidly expanding, joint effort with U.S. federal agents to break for the first time a long-suspected tie between top government officials in Mexico and the drug cartels, which authorities blame for being America's largest suppliers of cocaine and marijuana.
The Mexican officials said they had been gathering new evidence that Ruiz Massieu received at least some of the money as part of a widespread kickback scheme involving regional prosecutors, who passed along payoffs from drug gangs. They said Ruiz Massieu's accounts contained "dirty money."
"We have testimony about who was paying him off and how much they were delivering," one Mexican official said.
The Texas accounts, contrary to what the Mexican government announced last week, contained $9.3 million, not $6.9 million, a Mexican official said. No public complaint was provided in federal court in Houston to support the Customs seizure. But sources said the assets were seized based on information contained in sealed documents.
Investigators said they have testimony from officials close to Ruiz Massieu that regional prosecutors regularly delivered to him in Mexico City suitcases filled with drug money. It is suspected that he amassed a fortune, totaling at least $18 million, in the eight months he was Mexico's top anti-drug official, the Mexican source said.
Besides the seized Texas assets, and six other bank accounts in Mexico that total about $4 million, officials said Ruiz Massieu bought $5 million in property since March, 1994--including at least 40 automobiles and expensive homes in Acapulco, Cuernavaca and Houston. Investigators are tracking leads that he kept more accounts in Europe and the Caribbean.
Mexican prosecutors have gathered testimony from federal officials who worked in his office last year describing cases in which Mexico's federal judicial police arrested alleged drug traffickers but later received direct orders from Ruiz Massieu to release them.
Mexican officials said the seizure of the Texas accounts will bolster efforts to extradite Ruiz Massieu. Besides the alleged U.S. currency violations and the drug-corruption suspicions, Ruiz Massieu has been charged in Mexico with covering up Raul Salinas de Gortari's alleged role as a mastermind of the Sept. 28 assassination of Francisco Ruiz Massieu in Mexico City.
Francisco Ruiz Massieu, Mario Ruiz Massieu's brother, was the No. 2 official of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Salinas is the elder brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
The former president has not been implicated in any of the drug corruption or assassinations that have engulfed top Mexican officials. But he has loudly and publicly feuded with President Ernesto Zedillo after his handpicked successor violated the tradition here of allowing Mexican presidents to go into retirement undisturbed, in exchange for their silence.
Meantime, in other developments in the tangled Mexican cases:
* Government agents are investigating allegations that Raul Salinas, who is in a maximum security prison near Mexico City awaiting trial, laundered money for the Gulf cartel via the many companies he owns in Mexico, an official said. That drug cartel is allegedly headed by Juan Garcia Abrego, who was put on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List last week by American authorities. Witnesses have told Mexican authorities they saw Raul Salinas and Garcia Abrego together at an airport and at restaurants in Mexico.